Does It Matter Whether a Plaintiff Dies Before or After the Claim is Resolved?

When people file lawsuits, or otherwise pursue claims, the law usually wants the results to be final. As a result, once a case is settled or continued to judgment, it covers all of the claims that the plaintiff could have brought when the suit was filed. A recent case from Washington applies this principle to the question of whether an old suit can be the basis for a wrongful death claim many years after the old suit ends.

A former asbestos worker sued a number of companies for negligence in 1999. He had developed several cancers and other illnesses from exposure to asbestos, and a jury awarded him about $1.5 million. After he died in 2010, the executor of his estate sued one of the companies and several other companies for wrongful death, based on the same exposure to asbestos. The trial judge and the Court of Appeals both ruled that the earlier judgment ruled out a second claim.

The trial judge ruled based on Washington’s three-year statute of limitations, noting that 11 years had passed between the original suit and the new one. The executor argued that the wrongful death created a new claim. The courts said that the wrongful death law didn’t restart the clock. Instead, if the worker had died before the original suit ended, the executor could have then added a wrongful death claim as part of the original suit.

If your loved one has died during the course of a personal injury lawsuit, you may be able to add a wrongful death claim if the death was caused by the same injuries. On the other hand, if the suit was ended during his or her lifetime, you probably can’t reopen the case.

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