With the legislative session coming to a close, it looked unlikely Washington lawmakers would change a statute that prevented Rhonda and Wayne Ellis from holding someone accountable for their son’s death.
A bill which would have expanded which family members could sue for the wrongful death or injury of a loved one passed the Senate last month but stalled in the House.
The Ellises said they believed the bill, which would have allowed people from outside the United States and parents who are not dependent on their grown children to sue for wrongful death, would have saved other families the grief they’ve dealt with since April 13, 2015. That’s the day their son, Josh Ellis, his wife Vanessa and the couple’s 8 month-old son Hudson died three blocks from their Bonney Lake home when a concrete barrier fell from an overpass and onto their pickup.
The barrier fell as construction workers were demolishing a section of state Route 410. Four of the contracting companies working on the project later were fined for violating workplace safety standards, according to documents from the Department of Labor and Industries, but state law prevented the family from suing for wrongful death.
“This bill in our state Legislature would give other families the right for justice, for closure, to make it more risky to do business in Washington state and require these companies to be safer and not to let an accident like this happen again,” Wayne Ellis told The News Tribune and The Olympian said in a recent interview.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said she was not able to find enough Democrats to vote yes for Senate Bill 6015 to overcome Republican’s unanimous opposition.
State Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City, said he and other Republicans support expanding which family members can sue for the wrongful death of a relative but not if it comes at an undue cost to local governments. Graves said his caucus was concerned that, with the way the bill was written, one party could end up paying all of the damages even if multiple parties were involved in someone’s wrongful death .
This example outlines Graves point:
Someone dies in a car crash and three parties are to blame: the tire company, the car company and the city that built the road where the wreck occurred. Under SB 6015, if the companies could not pay damages, then the city would be forced to assume all of the costs. Graves proposed an amendment when the bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee that would have required each party to pay a proportional share of the damages.
“Justice is both about making sure that people get paid appropriately, but also that the appropriate party pays for it,” Graves said.
The Washington State Association of Counties said it would have supported the bill if money was included for local governments to offset the cost of additional lawsuits.
The Office of the Attorney general estimated an additional 12 wrongful death cases would be brought annually under the bill at a cost of roughly $3.4 million to the state.
“We’re not debating the policy. What we’re debating is the legislature’s longstanding history of passing the cost onto locals,” Brain Enslow, a lobbyist for the association, said in a recent interview. “If the legislature in their infinite wisdom thinks this is a good policy, then they need the initiative to fund it.”
Some supporters of the bill said that allowing non-residents to sue for the wrongful death of a loved-one would have closed another hole in state law that was unjust.
State Sen. Bob Hasegawa, a Democrat from the Seattle area who introduced SB 6015, said in a news release that clause was adopted “in 1917 to prevent the wives of Chinese coal-miners from obtaining wrongful death compensation.”
The clause also prevented several families in Asia from suing for the death of their children after a Ride the Ducks tour bus crashed into a charter bus in Seattle last year.
“We all deserve to be treated fairly under the law, no matter what our residency status is,” Hasegawa said. “Ride the Ducks Seattle should not be allowed to hide behind this statute to avoid public accountability and responsibility, which should be decided by the courts.”
Others believe opening wrongful death suits to parents of deceased grown children would help families find closure.
Rhonda Ellis, whose son Josh died in the Bonney Lake accident, said she felt state law deprived her of the right to hold the construction companies responsible for her son and his family’s death.
While the failed bill wouldn’t have allowed her or her ex-husband Wayne to retroactively sue for Josh’s death, Rhonda said it would have sparred other families from a feeling of helplessness.
“I deserve to be honored as mom and instead I got a slap in the face and a memorial under the bridge where my son was killed,” Rhonda said.