In wrongful death action, child's services to parents count, Washington high court says

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October 8, 2009

In wrongful death action, child's services to parents count, Washington high court says 

Susan Heylman

The trier of fact may consider the services adult children provided to their parents when considering whether the parents were dependent on the children for support, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled. State law requires this determination in order for parents to maintain a wrongful death action for the loss of an adult child. (Armantrout v. Carlson, 2009 WL 2883421 (Wash. Sept. 10, 2009).)

The court, sitting en banc, unanimously reversed an appellate court decision that held that a child’s services to a parent, even those that had an economic value, did not count as financial support.

“We changed the law and made it so everyone has equal access to the law, not just the wealthy,” said Simeon Osborn of Seattle, who represented plaintiffs Josie and Warren Armantrout.

“Under the old law, there were two classes: one class, whose children were rich enough to give their parents money, and the other, whose children didn’t have the money to give cash but who took them into their homes and helped them,” he said.

The decision reinstated a jury verdict for the parents of 18-year-old Kristen Armantrout in their wrongful death suit against the orthopedic medical group that treated their daughter. Kristen died of a pulmonary embolism two weeks after minor surgery on her ankle. At the time of her death, she was living at home with her mother, who has diabetes and is blind.

Kristen performed services for her mother, including driving, reading, and helping with medical needs such as glucose readings and insulin injections. In addition, she had contributed her monthly disability check toward household expenses.

At trial, the judge instructed the jurors that they could consider the annual value of the services Kristen provided—but not everyday services a child would routinely provide his or her parents.  The jury determined that, given the parents’ financial situation, they were substantially dependent on Kristen for support and would not otherwise have been able to pay for the services she provided.

The state supreme court agreed with the instruction. “By excluding the everyday services a child would routinely provide, the trial court clearly established the boundaries within which the jury would be allowed to consider the Armantrouts’ financial dependence on [their child’s] valuable services,” the court found. “The trial court correctly stated the law: [Wash. Rev. Code] §4.20.020 allows triers of fact to consider services that have a monetary value when assessing a claimant’s dependency on the decedent for support.”

Osborn noted that Washington state trial lawyers—along with Josie Armantrout—had lobbied the state legislature in an attempt to get the wrongful death law changed but had not been successful.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic that justice finally prevailed,” he said.

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