Washington Supreme Court Holds Defendant Subject to New Claims

Author: Bertha Baranko Fitzer

Guest Editor: Grace Shuman

Related Articles: Washington, Wrongful Death

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April 1, 2022 11:03am

When a personal representative signs a release that releases “[a]ny and all claims, demands, actions, causes of action of every kind…,” the carrier has the right to consider the matter concluded.[i]  Unfortunately, even the broadest release may be ineffective to ward off future claims if the Legislature steps in after the release is signed to expand the class of beneficiaries eligible to recover.  If the Legislature also states the statute is “remedial,” the courts will apply it retroactively, even if valid releases purporting to extinguish all claims have been executed.[ii]

The case of Kellogg v. National Railroad Passenger Corp. illustrates this point.  The Court rejected due process and contract clause challenges to the retroactive application of amendments to Washington’s Wrongful Death Act, RCW 4.20.020.  A unanimous Washington Supreme Court held that neither the broad release cited above, nor the Washington constitution, barred suits by newly created beneficiaries under the amended statute.

The case arises from a train accident in 2017.  James Hamre died when an Amtrak passenger train derailed on its inaugural high-speed run between Seattle and Portland.  Three passengers were killed and 57 were injured. James had no wife or children but did have a mother, two brothers, and a sister.  Only his mother was financially dependent on James.

James’ brother, Thomas, was appointed personal representative and executor of the estate. Because the version of RCW 4.20.020 in existence at the time required financial dependence in order for a mother or sibling to recover, only the mother qualified as a beneficiary.  In April 2018, Thomas signed a release on behalf of the estate.  The release stated: “by executing this Release, it is Releasor’s intention to enter into a final agreement with Releasees, and to ensure that Releasees have no further obligations to Releasor.”[iii]

In early 2019, the Legislature amended RCW 4.20.020, removing the financial dependence requirement.  James’ siblings thus became eligible to recover.  Two years after Thomas signed the release, James’ sister was appointed successor personal representative.  She promptly sued the original defendants on behalf of herself and the second brother.

Amtrak moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the signed release extinguished all claims.   The federal judge certified the case to the Washington Supreme Court for resolution of the issue of whether the statutory amendments were 1) retroactive, and 2) constitutional.  The Court answered both questions in the affirmative, reasoning the original personal representative could not waive rights to a claim that was not in existence at the time the release was signed.  The court also rejected the constitutional challenges.

While this holding impacts only those small number of wrongful death claims viable under the statute of limitations, the opinion has larger implications for any legislation that expands the rights of claimants.  The defense bar should unite and oppose “remedial” language in any legislation that expands claimants’ rights.  Because the courts interpret “remedial” to mean retroactive, neither a valid release nor due process arguments will bar claims by those newly eligible to recover.

 

 

 


[i] Kellogg v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., No. 99724-1 (Wash. Feb. 24, 2022) at 3, citing Ex. H at 1.

[ii] Kellogg at 4.

[iii] Kellogg v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., No. 99724-1 (Wash. Feb. 24, 2022) at 3, citing Ex. H at 1.

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