Wrongful Death Claims Resulting From Medical Malpractice

This family member grieves and is angry at the Wrongful Death of his loved on.

Over the past 150 years the average American lifespan has roughly doubled, largely because of innovations in diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease. Medicine, however, is a human enterprise. It can preserve life, but also take life.

This idea was explored in the landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) 1999 report, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” The report found that an estimated 44,000-98,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical errors.

If you’ve lost somebody close to you due to a preventable medical error, even one mistake is too many.

As the surviving relative of a medical malpractice victim, you may be wondering what your legal rights are in Washington state. A lawsuit to recover money damages may be an option. Washington has specific laws that say who can file a wrongful death claim, as well as what types of damages may be available.

The medical malpractice lawyers at Tinker Law Firm, PLLC in Seattle can help if you have reason to believe that your relative died because of medical negligence. Our attorneys have recovered millions of dollars on behalf of those harmed by negligent medical care.

For a free review of your case, complete our online contact form.

How often does medical negligence cause wrongful death?

Iatrogenic harm — or harm resulting from medical treatment — is responsible for about 225,000 deaths each year in the United States. That is the figure cited by Dr. Barbara Starfield, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The specific types of harm identified by Dr. Starfield, along with the number of lives they claim each year, include:

  • Unnecessary surgery (12,000).
  • Hospital medication errors (7,000).
  • Other hospital errors (20,000).
  • Hospital infections (80,000).
  • Non-error, adverse effects of medications (106,000).

Preventable medical errors are responsible for at least 44,000 and as many as 98,000 deaths per year, according to the JAMA article. Even using the smaller of these two figures, preventable medical errors kill more Americans each year than car accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS. The total number of deaths caused by medical treatment ranks third on the list of the leading causes of death, behind only heart disease and cancer.

What types of medical errors may result in wrongful death?

The types of negligent medical errors that often result in death may be divided into the following categories:

  • Diagnostic errors – A Johns Hopkins study found that diagnostic errors result in more malpractice claims, payouts, and patient harm than any other type of medical error. The most common diagnostic errors are delayed, incorrect, and missed diagnoses.
  • Treatment errors – A treatment error can occur when the wrong operation, procedure, or test is performed, the wrong drug or drug dose is provided (medication error), or abnormal test results are not appropriately responded to.
  • Preventive errorsIf treatment that could have prevented a medical condition from developing is not provided, it could be considered a preventive error. Preventive errors may result from inadequate patient monitoring or inadequate follow-up treatment.
  • Other types of errors – These include communication failures (such as between a laboratory and a doctor) and equipment failures.

What is involved in a medical malpractice wrongful death claim in Washington?

In any type of medical malpractice lawsuit, it is necessary to show the following:

  • The existence of a doctor-patient relationship.
  • Negligence (that the “standard of care” was not met).
  • Patient injury caused by the negligence.
  • Damages (losses) resulting from patient injury.

In a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit, all these elements remain in place, except that the term “injury” is replaced by “death.” In other words, a doctor’s negligence must have caused the patient’s death, resulting in economic and/or non-economic losses.

The other major difference between a typical medical malpractice lawsuit and a malpractice lawsuit alleging wrongful death involves who serves as the plaintiff. The primary plaintiff in a regular malpractice suit is the injured person. A wrongful death suit must be brought by the estate of the deceased person, through an appointed personal representative of the estate. The suit is brought for the benefit of both the estate and the deceased person’s statutory beneficiaries under Washington law, including spouse, children, and step children. If no spouse, registered domestic partner, or children exist, the suit may be brought for the benefit of dependent parents or siblings.

The damages that may be pursued in a Washington wrongful death lawsuit include:

  • The decedent’s medical bills, lost wages, and future lost income.
  • Funeral and burial costs.
  • “Non-economic” damages for things such as pain and suffering and loss of companionship experienced by surviving family members due to the patient’s death.

A wrongful death lawsuit based on medical malpractice must be filed within three years of the patient’s death in most cases in Washington. This time limit, known as the statute of limitations, is an extremely important consideration. After three years, it may be impossible to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Washington. For more information about statutes of limitation, please see our resource page.

Speak With an Experienced Attorney in Seattle

If a close relative died as a result of negligent medical care, you may be eligible to pursue a wrongful death claim against the responsible doctor, nurse, hospital, or other healthcare provider.

The attorneys at Tinker Law Firm, PLLC in Seattle are experienced in reviewing cases that involve patients who died while undergoing medical treatment. Our lawyers work with doctors, nurses and other medical experts to review medical records for indicators of negligent errors in patient treatment.

To talk to our team about your situation, call us today or fill out our online contact form for a free claim evaluation.


  • JAMA – Is US Health Really the Best in the World?
  • Institute of Medicine – To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System
  • American Association for Justice – Preventable Medical Errors—The Sixth Biggest Killer in America
  • CDC – Deaths and Mortality
  • Washington State Legislature – Chapter 4.20 RCW: Survival of Actions
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine – Diagnostic Errors More Common, Costly and Harmful Than Treatment Mistakes