Wrongful Death Case: Revisions on Whether Surviving Parents of an Adult Child’s Death Can Claim a Loss

By Adler Giersch PS

When a child dies under the age of 18, the law recognizes the inherent loss of love and emotional support of the parent/child relationship and allows the parents to recover against the wrongdoer who caused the death. However, when the child is over 18, the parent’s recovery is limited to the loss of financial support if the parent was financially dependent on the adult child. Phillippides v. Bernard 151 Wn2d.376 (2004). The loss of love and emotional support of the adult child to the parent has not been recognized in Washington law.

Washington claims in this context are controlled by an interwoven group of statutory laws established by the state legislature under the rubric of wrongful death and survival actions. The wrongful death statute, RCW 4.20.010, provides compensation for a decedent’s surviving family members for financial losses they sustain as a result of the death. There is also a general survival statute, RCW 4.20.046, which preserves a cause of action for the benefit of the decedent’s estate. The laws spell out who can make a claim when someone’s death is caused by the wrongful act of an individual or entity. The laws also spell out what elements of damages can be recovered based on the claimants relationship to the deceased.

A recent Washington State Supreme Court case has taken a step toward recognizing the value of the relationship between an adult child and their parent beyond pure financial support when the child is negligently killed.

This issue was presented in a case decided this year when 18 year old Kristen Armantrout died as a result of negligence and her mother and father sought to bring an action for wrongful death damages.

Kristen had acted as her blind mother’s companion and aide in performing activities of daily living including driving, medication injections, monitoring her glucose levels and reading to her. She had also used her small Social Security check toward family expenses, although most of the family’s money was provided by her father from his out of state employment. The trial court decision supported the parents claim, but the Court of Appeals overturned that decision by ruling that economically valuable services could not be considered when deciding if there was financial dependence.

The Supreme Court of Washington, after reviewing briefs from all parties and hearing oral argument reversed the Court of Appeals by noting that precedent in Washington established:

“…parents to show something more than emotional dependence on adult children, should not be read to preclude truly dependent parents from claiming beneficiary status. Notably, the jury instruction in this case explicitly excluded the ‘everyday services a child would routinely provide’ and any ‘emotional support Kristin [sic] may have provided her parents.’ …This was sufficient to properly guide the jury in considering the value of Kristen’s services within the context of the Armantrouts overall financial dependence on her. Kristen Armantrout was able to support her blind, diabetic mother by providing valuable services in addition to a cash contribution. The jury decided that provision of these services, valued at $36,533 per year, combined with Kristen’s contribution of her monthly disability check was sufficient to establish the Armantrouts’ substantial dependence on Kristen for support.” Armantrout v. Carlson & Cascade Orthopaedics, No. 81195-4 File Date: 09/10/2009

This case is a step forward in recognizing contributions adult children make to their parents well- being with non-financial support, in-kind services and time, as these are of real value in their quality of life, just as providing direct financial assistance is. This recognition is even more important as the number of aging Americans grows, and more adult children provide support in various ways for their elderly parents in need.

The laws surrounding wrongful death claims for adults and children are complex and changing. These types of claims require experienced legal counsel for initial guidance on the merits of the claim, followed by tough advocacy and skilled representation protecting the rights of the parent and child.

Adler Giersch PS stands ready to provide assistance in wrongful death and survivor claim cases through its offices in Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and Kent.