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Years after Seattle crash, Senate moves to amend 1909 law

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Four years after a fatal Seattle crash, the Washington Senate Tuesday approved an update to parts of the state’s wrongful death law.

The proposal would remove requirements that, after an accidental death in the state, family members must live in the United States and be economically dependent on the victim to be able file a wrongful death claim here. The law dates to 1909.

A fatal 2015 crash in Seattle drew attention to the law, when an amphibious “Ride the Ducks” tourist vehicle veered into oncoming traffic, killing five and injuring 69 when it struck a tour bus full of foreign students. At least one family of a victim in the crash later challenged the law, calling it discriminatory.

Lawmakers approved the proposal on a 30-17 vote, sending it to the state House.

In debate before the vote, the bill’s sponsor said the provision stemmed from efforts by business interests at the beginning of the 20th century to block claims made by the families of Chinese miners killed in workplace accidents.

“This law has its roots in racist origins,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

State documents date the provision in the law to 1909.

Hasegawa’s language echoed claims by the Korean parents of a student killed in the crash, who challenged the constitutionality of the law, calling it discriminatory. A judge later dismissed their case on other grounds.

Some Republican legislators objected to the bill Tuesday, warning that expanding the number of people able to file wrongful death claims would ultimately increase legal costs for the state.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, pointed to the proposal’s estimated $7.4 million price tag over the coming two years. “You have to realize that this is money that we can’t spend for other important things,” Braun said.

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, said the bill also wouldn’t change restrictions that U.S. citizens might face in other countries.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, acknowledged the cost of the bill, but he said he thought the potential costs of wrongful deaths would serve as motivation for both the state and private employers to improve safety.

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