The Korean parents of a student who died in the Aurora Bridge crash in Seattle on Sept. 24, 2015, are challenging in federal court the constitutionality of sections of the state law, calling the language discriminatory.
The parents of an international student killed in the Aurora Bridge crash last September say part of Washington’s wrongful-death law, written in 1909, discriminates against foreigners and should be overhauled.
Kim Soon Wan and Jeong Ju Hee, the parents of Kim Ha Ram, who died at age 20 in the Sept. 24 crash in Seattle, are working with a Washington attorney to challenge in U.S. federal court the constitutionality of the language, which bars them from bringing forward claims over the death because they live in South Korea.
“We are desperately seeking the way to nullify this evil discriminatory law,” the family said in a translated statement, “so that every parent who has been suffering like us … can be substantially comforted.”
The case, however, faces a battle. The Washington Attorney General’s Office believes the language is constitutional. Advocates for years have tried at the Capitol to get it changed.
According to the law, parents may bring such claims over the death of a single adult child only if they can prove dependency on the child for support and that the parents were in the U.S. at the time of the death.
The family’s complaint, filed in the Western District of Washington in Seattle, is among numerous lawsuits filed over the deadly crash. A Ride the Ducks tourist vehicle slammed into an oncoming charter bus filled with North Seattle College students, killing five and injuring dozens more.
Kim Ha Ram is survived by two younger siblings and her parents, who live in Namyangju, which is in Gyeonggi province, South Korea.
The family’s complaint names as defendants Ride the Ducks of Seattle and Ride the Ducks International in Missouri. They are represented by attorney William Schroeder from Spokane.
Ride the Ducks is citing the wrongful-death law’s two-pronged language, saying the family isn’t legally allowed to file claims, according to the company’s response. For the family, available damages include funeral and medical expenses.
Only state lawmakers can change the law’s language, and advocates for years have led unsuccessful efforts seeking revisions, said Larry Shannon, Washington State Association for Justice government affairs director. Alternatively, a court could rule the language unconstitutional, making it unenforceable.
Commenting on the laws, Patricia K. Buchanan, an attorney representing Ride the Ducks of Seattle, offered the following in statement:
“In defending this case, we are simply following the state laws that govern these sorts of actions. We take no position on the merit of the law; that is the province of the Washington State legislature.”
The family’s case is arguing that the 1909 language violates sections of the 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution and the state’s constitution and the state’s anti-discrimination law.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for Sept. 30.
Calling the language constitutional, the Washington Attorney General’s Office said the plaintiffs’ argument is based, in part, on misunderstandings of facts, according to court documents. The state intervened under a law that provides the right when the constitutionality of such language “affecting the public interest is drawn into question,” the documents say.
In 1909, the Legislature actually expanded the state’s existing wrongful-death law to include the language in question, though not on the basis of race, those documents say.
“Rather, it is a reasonable economic distinction related to the purpose of the statutes,” they say. Before the 1909 language, the law did not allow any parent of an adult child to bring a wrongful-death claim, according to the documents.
Hugh Spitzer, a constitutional-law and state-law professor at the University of Washington, provided the following analysis: The law strictly pertains to residency, not a person’s national origin. A person could say that the law, in a sense, discriminates against Americans when they are in another country at the time of an adult child’s death, he said.
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Shannon, with the Washington State Association for Justice, was part of numerous efforts at the Capitol to get the law changed. The efforts focused on both requirements: residency and dependency.
“It’s something in law that nobody knows about until something like this (the Ducks crash) happens, and then you think, ‘My God, how have we allowed that to be the law?’ ” he said.
Shannon said Washington’s wrongful-death law is fairly unusual. Its multiple prongs, when combined, set it apart from other states.
“There are probably two or three other states that are similarity situated,” he said.
Fierce opposition, including from lobbyists on behalf of insurance companies, for example, has successfully blocked the pushes for change at the Capitol, Shannon said.
“Question marks” on the financial impact remain the biggest hurdle, he said.