After fatal Ride the Ducks crash, a push to amend Washington’s wrongful death statute

Jacqueline E. Wu January 4, 2018 0

Ride the Ducks crossing the Fremont Bridge in 2007 • Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

On September 24, 2015, five North Seattle College students were killed and several others were injured when a neglected and defective Ride the Ducks vehicle collided with a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge. The five students were Haram Kim (South Korea), Runjie Song (China), Mami Sato (Japan), Ivan Putradanton (Indonesia) and Claudia Derschmidt (Austria). Song was the only minor at the time of the accident; and Derschmidt was the only adult with a child. The charter bus was carrying 45 North Seattle College international students and staff, heading to Safeco Field and Pike Place Market as part of orientation amidst the beginning of the school year.

Since then, families filed wrongful death claims on behalf of the students, but the filings were stalled due to a statute that is over 100 years old, racist and anti-immigrant.

The state defines wrongful death as the following:

When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another, his or her personal representative may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death.

However, there are two conditions on beneficiaries who may file a claim. The first is that they must be spouses or children of the deceased. Second, parents or siblings can only make a claim if they were financially dependent on the victim or lived in the United States at the time. At the time, none of the families were financially dependent on the victims or living in the United States.

Furthermore, parents do not have a right to file a wrongful death claim if their child is an adult, even though the relationship between parent and child does not end when a child turns 18.

The legal history of the law is rooted in anti-Chinese sentiment. At the time, the U.S. passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barring Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. In 1885, the “Tacoma Method” was developed when city officials and white men rounded up the Chinese and placed them on a train to Portland. The method of expulsion was later emulated in other cities to drive away the Chinese.

Of Chinese immigrants who were already in the U.S., the majority in Washington state were laborers working in railroads and canneries – industries with a high mortality rate. In addition, white laborers bore anti-Chinese sentiment. Threatened by the scarcity of jobs, white laborers retaliated against the Chinese with violence and hostility.

The Washington state wrongful death statute was created to prevent the wives of Chinese laborers, who were not able to immigrate due to the 1875 Paige Act, from filing wrongful claims on behalf of their husbands. In comparison to other states’ wrongful death statute, Washington is an outlier.

Currently, the Wrongful Death Law Amendment Coalition is working with the families of the North Seattle College students who were killed and with members of the legislature to amend the state’s wrongful death statute. The Wrongful Death Law Amendment Coalition was founded by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum Seattle and comprises of the Washington State Association for Justice, OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates-Greater Seattle, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Japanese American Citizens League and student organizations.

The Coalition is working with Sen. Bob Hasegawa and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, to amend that statue to allow non-Washington residents to seek benefits of deceased persons. House Bill 2262 reflects those changes, and a companion Senate Bill will be submitted. Both bills will undergo revisions in January during the 2018 legislative session. Families who are affected by the current wrongful death statute will testify in Olympia.

This year marked the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although Chinese are now allowed to immigrate and naturalize legally in the U.S., there is a legacy of anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment present within the legal system. Despite Washington state blocking the Executive Order Muslim Travel Ban and deeming itself a “Sanctuary State,” it continues to practice a regressive wrongful death clause.

The Wrongful Death Law Amendment is actively working to amend Washington State statute for a fair and equal legal system. The hope is that families of the students who were killed in the Ride the Duck accident may receive justice and closure.

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