April 8, 2002 - Judge: Parents of Grown Children Can Sue for Wrongful Death
The parents of a 22-year-old bicyclist who was run down in a Seattle crosswalk can sue the driver for wrongful death, a ruling yesterday that may finally give legal recourse to other Washington parents whose adult-aged children are killed.
Until now, state law has prevented parents from suing those who might be responsible unless the child was a dependent under age 18. Yesterday, King County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Learned ruled that a 1998 change in the law means parents can sue regardless.
For the parents of Yianni Philippides, who died in June 2000, one week after he was hit by a sport-utility vehicle driven by an out-of-town businessman, the ruling was a sweet triumph.
"The relationship between parents and children is no different, no matter the age of the child," said Philippides' mother, Kathryn. "Your child is your happiness. Your child is your hope for the future.... Your child is always your child."
The decision could help hundreds, even thousands, of parents seek damages in wrongful-death suits for their grown children, according to the Philippideses' attorneys, Philip Talmadge and William Bailey.
"It's a big change. It's a good change," said Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice. "It's the way the law should be."
Bailey said he was pleased to see the law respecting "the ties of family members," noting that "a number of states have already taken this step."
An attorney for the driver said he had not decided whether he would appeal.
Philippides, a University of Washington student with a knack for art and writing, was working as a bicycle messenger on June 22, 2000. His family's attorneys say he was slowly pedaling across Alaskan Way at Seneca Street when he was struck by an Isuzu Trooper.
The driver was Robert Bernard, who then lived in Michigan and worked as a salesman for Wolverine World Wide Inc., an international clothing marketer. The attorneys contend that Bernard had already plowed into the young man by the time he hit the brakes.
Philippides was rushed to Harborview Medical Center. He never regained consciousness and was determined to be brain dead. On June 30, 2000, he was taken off life-support.
Philippides' parents are now suing Bernard, Wolverine and Robert Johns, a motorist who apparently didn't realize the Trooper wasn't stopping and waived Philippides across. The trial is set for trial Aug. 19.
Yesterday, attorneys for Wolverine and Johns argued that Philippides' parents were not entitled to sue because their son was an adult and they did not depend on him for financial support.
Mark Thorsrud, who represents both Bernard and Wolverine, said the Legislature's 1998 amendment to the "child death statute" means parents can only sue for non-financial support -- such as emotional or psychological support -- if the child is under 18.
"This is not a case of what the law ought to be; it's a case of what the law is," Thorsrud said. "The amendment is limited to minor children. The plaintiffs completely and consistently ignore the word 'minor.'"
He said the arguments made by the Philippideses' lawyers "have been previously rejected by the courts."
But Talmadge argued that the Legislature broadened the statute to let parents sue for "loss of consortium" -- essentially love and companionship -- even if the child was grown. He said it was part of a modern trend to change centuries-old laws in which children were treated as mere property.
"Mothers and fathers may sue if they are dependent on the child for support -- (the statute) does not say 'financial support,'" Talmadge argued. "Support means significant involvement in a child's life."
Talmadge noted that Philippides' parents would still have to show not only that the defendants were negligent and caused the man's death, but also the loss they suffered.
"This is an opportunity to allow these parents, grieving as they are, to have their day in court," he said.
Learned said the Legislature would have included the word "financial" in a specific portion of the statute if it intended to limit support to simply money. She ruled that the 1998 amendment broadened the definition of support.
George and Kathryn Philippides and their daughter, Zoe, were elated. Yianni Philippides' estate could have only sought to recoup his medical expenses and "a very minimalist calculation" of wages he could have earned, Bailey said.
The family was frustrated by the criminal-justice system, which left Bernard with a negligent-driving ticket instead of a felony charge.
"When someone is only given a ($200) ticket for taking a life, it's not fair," Kathryn Philippides said.
King County prosecutors found the case didn't meet the criteria for a vehicular homicide. That charge requires something more egregious than simple inattention, even if the victim is in a crosswalk, said prosecutor's chief of staff Dan Satterberg.
Talmadge, as a Supreme Court justice, wrote a 1999 decision finding that crosswalks should provide the same protection to bicyclists as to pedestrians.
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