For the past decade, Washington has witnessed several high-stake personal injury cases. One of these is the $185 million product liability lawsuit of three teachers against Monsanto, a manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and Monroe School District for exposing them to hazardous levels of PCBs, leading to brain damage, among other health issues. Another headline-grabbing case involves the construction crane collapse in Seattle in 2019, which claimed the lives of four people and concluded in a $150 million verdict.
While not all personal injury claims end in multi-million dollar settlements or verdicts, these cases provide insights into the intricate laws that govern personal injury cases in the state and shed light on the rights and remedies available for individuals seeking compensation for their injuries and losses. Below are some of the laws and regulations in Washington that may affect a person’s personal injury claim.
Washington’s Premises Liability Laws
In Washington, property owners and occupiers are responsible for keeping their properties safe and have a duty of care for the people they welcome into their property (e.g., guests, customers, patients, and tenants). They may be held liable for injuries and losses a guest or customer may incur if an accident happens on their property. The following are different types of premises liability cases:
Slip and fall accidents.
Ice or snow accidents.
Inadequate premises maintenance.
Elevator or escalator accidents.
However, just because the injury or death happened on their property doesn’t mean they are automatically liable for the accident. A property owner can only be held legally responsible if they directly caused the unsafe condition or failed to remedy it despite being aware of the hazard on their property. The injured party can sue them if a warning of the danger wasn’t given or the hazard wasn’t addressed immediately. For example, a store owner may not be legally liable for the injuries of a customer who slipped on the floor while shopping if they placed “slippery when wet” signs throughout the store.
A property owner is also not responsible for a person’s injury if they got it while trespassing on the owner’s property or committing a criminal act.
Workers’ Compensation Insurance Laws in Washington
Washington is one of the four monopolistic states in the U.S., along with Ohio, North Dakota, and Wyoming. This means the state requires employers to acquire workers’ compensation insurance exclusively from a state fund, not private insurers.
In the state, businesses must buy workers’ compensation coverage from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). The state agency calculates the premium that a business has to pay based on its risk classification and experience factor. L&I’s work comp coverage includes accident funds, supplemental pension funds, stay-at-work reimbursement, and medical aid funds.
This type of insurance covers employees’ medical expenses, reimburses retraining costs (if the injury requires them to change their career or do other work temporarily), and provides partial or total disability benefits in case an employee gets injured on the job. It also includes death benefits for the surviving dependents of employees who died as a direct result of their jobs.
Most businesses in Washington are mandated to secure workers’ compensation coverage for people working for them, except for:
Some musicians and entertainers.
Minors helping with their family farms.
Domestic workers working for less than 40 hours in private homes.
Gardeners, maintenance workers, and people doing similar jobs in private homes.
Individuals who get aid for providing services for religious or charitable institutions.
Journalists or photojournalists paid for every submitted piece and the use of their own equipment.
Salon workers who rent their own commercial spaces.
Jockeys who prepare horses or participate in races licensed by the WA Horse Racing Commission.
For-hire operators of taxicabs or other vehicles, as well as chauffeurs in the limousine business.
Employees covered by L&I’s workers’ compensation coverage can consult a healthcare provider outside the L&I Medical Provider Network for initial medical care, but additional treatments must be from an accredited provider. Injured workers must report their injuries to their employers promptly and have 1-2 years to file a claim, depending on the type of injuries they sustained.
Strict Dog Bite Laws in Washington
Washington is one of the states that don't follow the one-bite rule, in which dog owners receive some degree of protection from liabilities if it's their dogs' first time causing injuries to other people.
According to the Revised Code of Washington 16.08.040, a dog owner is liable for damages if their dog bit someone in a public or private place, including their own property. This law applies regardless of whether or not the dog has a history of biting people or even if the owner was unaware that their dog was dangerous. However, the owner may not be responsible for the dog bite incident if the victim is proven to be trespassing on private property or there is proof of provocation.
Unfortunately, if the dog that attacked the victim is a stray, the chance of pursuing legal action and getting compensation is slim. The victim, however, can file a premises liability case if the dog is under the care of a local pound. They must prove that the pound was negligent, resulting in their injuries.
If a person gets attacked by a dog, the state recommends that the victim seek medical assistance immediately to get treatment and form a connection between the dog bite incident and their injuries. The victim must also reach out to their local animal control office to report the accident.
Personal Injury Claims Against the Government in Washington
The government, like any individual or entity, can be sued for negligent actions that cause harm or injuries to people. One recent example of cases against government entities is Dunham v. State of Washington, in which the victim developed quadriplegia due to a vehicular accident on a high-speed highway where the Washington State Department of Transportation installed a signal despite federal and state guidelines advising against it. Another recent case involved the City of Seattle and the State of Washington, which were sued by a biker after he sustained injuries due to a tripping hazard on the Montlake Bridge sidewalk.
Filing an injury claim against a local or state government entity or employee is different from suing an individual or a business. To establish a negligence claim, the victim must first file a notice of claim with the municipality or state involved within three years. Failure to do so may result in case dismissal. Some government entities will try to reach a settlement with the victim. If this isn’t the case, the victim can start their lawsuit 60 days after filing their notice of claim.
Medical Malpractice Cases in Washington
A patient is entitled to pursue a medical malpractice claim in Washington if:
They got injured due to the healthcare provider’s failure to provide the accepted standard of care.
The healthcare provider didn’t inform the patient or guardian that the injury might happen.
They sustained injuries caused by treatment or care that the patient or their guardian didn’t consent to.
Some examples of medical malpractice acts are medical mistakes during delivery or labor, misdiagnosis, surgical errors, medication errors, and laboratory result misreadings.
Before a medical malpractice claim reaches the court, the victim must meet with the other party in mandatory mediation. The mediation procedures must be supervised by a mediator, who must be well-versed in actions or cases related to injuries caused by medical care and either a member of the state bar association for at least five years or a retired judge. All information shared during mediation is confidential. If both parties fail to establish a settlement agreement, everything said and done during mediation is not legally binding.
Washington Business Liability Insurance Requirements
Aside from the mandatory workers’ compensation coverage from L&I, businesses in Washington must carry a commercial auto insurance policy if they own and operate commercial vehicles. This type of insurance covers medical expenses, lost wages, and other costs in the event that a vehicle used for work purposes gets involved in an accident. Businesses must have the following coverage:
$25,000 bodily injury liability per person.
$50,000 bodily injury liability per accident.
$10,000 property damage liability per accident.
Operating a vehicle in Washington without insurance may cost the business a fine of up to $250.
Although some landlords and clients require general liability coverage for businesses they transact with, the state doesn’t mandate this type of commercial insurance coverage. Policyholders of general liability insurance are protected against common business risks since it covers costs in case a customer gets injured in their commercial space.
How Much Can Someone Sue for an Injury in Washington?
Washington courts consider damage caps on personal injury cases unconstitutional. This means there is no limit on how much victims can recover for non-economic damages or non-monetary losses like pain, mental distress, loss of enjoyment of life, disfigurement, and grief after a loved one’s death. Victims are also entitled to compensation for economic damages, including medical expenses and lost wages, which also don’t have a damage cap.
Monetary awards for punitive damages, however, are prohibited in the state. Punitive damages, which some states grant in addition to economic and non-economic damages, are meant to punish a defendant for grave wrongdoing, not to make up for the injured party’s losses.
The Statute of Limitations in Washington
A personal injury victim in Washington must file a claim within three years from the date of the accident, whether their case involves negligence or intentional tort (i.e., there was an intent to harm other people). However, there are some instances when the three-year limit can be extended. These include:
If a patient doesn’t discover the effects of their healthcare provider’s negligence or malpractice immediately, they can still file a medical malpractice claim one year within the time they discover their injury.
If a victim is incapacitated due to the accident, the three-year limit will be paused during their recovery period.
If the victim is a minor at the time of the accident, they are given three years to file a lawsuit once they turn 18.
If the party who allegedly caused the accident leaves Washington, the three-year period won’t run during the time they are not in the state.
Legal Resources for Injured Folks in Washington
This resource provides information for workers needing guidance in applying for workers’ compensation claims. It includes instructions on the first things an employee must do after sustaining work-related injuries and other relevant information like where to get medical care, what to expect from their medical provider, and what kind of assistance to expect from their employer.
The OIC protects the rights of insurance policyholders in Washington by advising them, investigating insurance-related issues, and overseeing the industry in the state. It provides various resources, including articles and guides, news updates, and platforms for insurance consumers to file complaints and verify a company or an agent’s license.
NJP, the state’s legal assistance program with the most public funding, offers legal aid to low-income individuals and families dealing with civil law issues. To reach out for free assistance, qualified Washingtonians can apply online or call their hotlines on weekdays. In addition to the legal help, NJP has WashingtonLawHelp.org, a free online resource that contains know-your-rights articles, packets, court forms, and videos about various legal matters, including workers’ compensation.
WSAJ matches people looking for legal assistance with attorneys in different practice areas, including personal injury. Injured individuals can narrow down their search based on various criteria, including location and languages spoken. Aside from the attorney locator, WSAJ also has an expert/litigation services directory for those who need guidance from experts or consultants in different areas, such as insurance, premises liability, medicine, and occupational injury.
This resource from L&I contains relevant information for employees of self-insured businesses. It covers workers’ compensation insurance, work-related injuries, benefits, claim processes, employees’ rights and responsibilities, and claim-related issues.
Independent of L&I, the Office of the Ombuds protects the rights of workers employed by self-insured employers who sustained work-related injuries. It looks into complaints, shares information with workers, and takes appropriate actions so the injured workers can obtain the benefits they deserve.
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