Nearly 60 activists and community members crowded into the 21 Progress office on Jan. 5 to launch a campaign to amend the state’s wrongful death laws. The laws have prevented the families of international students killed in a 2015 accident with Ride the Ducks vehicles from recovering damages from the company.
In September, 2015, a Ride the Ducks vehicle collided with a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge, killing five international students from North Seattle College and injuring dozens more. The families of the victims were prevented from suing for wrongful death under Washington state law, which requires parents to be U.S. residents and to have lost financial support from the child, if he or she was over the age of 18.
Haram Kim, from Korea, was 20 years old when she died of injuries sustained in the crash.
“We are embarrassed that we are treated differently than American citizens – and that Haram’s death means less because we do not live in the U.S.,” wrote Haram’s father, Kim Soon Won, in a statement read at the event.
In addition to the residency requirement, Washington is one of just three states to require parents to prove financial dependence on their adult child in order to sue for wrongful death. Bills introduced in both houses of the legislature would change these requirements.
In a statement read at the event, Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11) called the current law “an example of the harmful xenophobia and racism that has been allowed to stay in our state’s laws for far too long.” He has sponsored the senate bill to amend the law, SB 6015. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37) sponsored the House version, HB 2262.
“It is my hope that with this bill, we can finally bring justice for the families, ensure that we do not perpetrate this wrong again, and make Washington a more welcoming state to all,” Hasegawa wrote.
The current version of the law was created in 1909. Ming-Ming Tung Edelman of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance said it was initially targeted at Chinese laborers.
“This is not right, it’s not what we should do in 2018,” she said.
Edelman pointed out the current law could impact anyone from tourists from Canada to international employees of companies like Amazon.
In his statement, Kim called the law discriminatory.
“It is not understandable that the United States, which is proud to be a world police officer, still has such unjust and unfair laws in its own country,” he wrote.
This is not the first attempt to amend the law. Previous bills have faced opposition from insurance companies, and concerns about potential liabilities and costs to the state, said Joseph Lachman of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Lachman said previous bills’ fiscal impacts were overestimated. There is not yet a fiscal note available for the current version of the bills, which were prefiled before the legislature convened on January 8. But the Washington State Association for Justice, one of the coalition groups campaigning for the amendment, estimated the cost to local governments would be less than a third of what was projected under earlier bills.
“In our view this shouldn’t be a fiscal issue, it’s a moral one,” Lachman said.
Emily Tasaka of the Associated Students of the University of Washington spoke about the importance of rallying other students to support the amendment, and how they can do so by sharing on social media, contacting their legislators, and showing up in Olympia for events like Huskies on the Hill.
“We need all the student voices possible,” Tasaka said. She said even resident students whose parents are out of the country temporarily at the time of death could be impacted.
The coalition to amend the wrongful death law includes the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum Seattle, the Washington State Association for Justice, OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates-Greater Seattle, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and the Japanese American Citizens League. Every speaker at the event urged people to contact their representatives, comment in support of the amendment, and endorse the measure online.
“They will make it a priority, they will listen to their constituents’ voices,” Lachman said.
Ride the Ducks International, the manufacturer of the Seattle duck boats, agreed in 2016 to pay up to $1 million in fines for violating federal safety laws. The company had found that some of the 2.5-ton amphibious vehicles could have defective front axles. But they did not notify regulators of the defect or issue a full recall, instead sending notices to buyers and relying on them to make the needed repairs, which Ride the Ducks of Seattle failed to do. Two years after the manufacturer’s warning, the duck vehicle’s axle broke off and the driver lost control, crossing the center line and plowing into the North Seattle College charter bus.
The Seattle tour company temporarily suspended operations after the accident, then added a second employee to narrate tours instead of asking drivers to drive and narrate simultaneously. The duck boats also no longer cross the Aurora Bridge.
Several suits were brought against Ride the Ducks Seattle and the vehicle’s manufacturer. A judge dismissed the Kim family’s case in 2016, citing the residency requirement and the requirement of financial dependency.
But for Kim’s family, no amount of compensation will replace what they lost.
“(Haram) talked to us every day for at least an hour even when she was in America,” Kim wrote.
“There is not a single day that goes by without us thinking about her, struggling with our loss and missing her.”
The Senate version of the bill will be heard before the Committee on Law & Justice at 10 a.m. on Jan. 18. The public can also comment on the bill via the Legislature’s website.