Civil lawsuits are open to the public because they involve both public and private interests. The two main goals of any civil suit are deterrence and compensation. Deterrence serves the public interests, and compensation the private ones. Trials are generally held in a court near where the injuries occurred as it is felt that community has a particular interest in establishing and enforcing the goals of deterrence, which is to promote public safety and freedom from harm (and death) through deterring negligent action, products or property.
Before Washington became a state, the law allowed actions to fully compensate for injuries, but not death, as it was thought that an action for death died with the person. As that restriction did nothing for public safety and deterrence, it was rejected. The law now allows and encourages actions for wrongful death, with the primary purpose being deterrence. It is also thought that strict enforcement of safety rules and a broad award of damages provides the best incentive for safety and the protection of life.
It is accepted that public protection is increased and overall societal costs decreased by deterring unreasonable behavior through placing liability and responsibility in the hands of the institutions or individuals who can best reduce the risks that endanger health or life. Holding those accountable without limitation on the amount of recoverable damages strengthens this public safety policy and serves best to deter unreasonable conduct. As Washington’s Supreme Court has consistently held for decades:
It is manifest that one of the primary purposes of a state in creating a cause of action in the heirs for the wrongful death of the decedent is to deter the kind of conduct within its borders which wrongfully takes life. . . . It is also abundantly clear that a cause of action for wrongful death without any limitation as to the amount of recoverable damages strengthens the deterrent aspect of the civil sanction: ‘the sting of unlimited recovery . . . more effectively penalize(s) the culpable defendant and deter(s) it and others similarly situated from such future conduct.’
Johnson v. Spider Staging Corp., 87 Wn.2d 577, 583 (1976).
Federal courts and agencies are equally concerned. In assessing the risks and benefits of regulated programs and policies such as the Clean Air Act, the government places a value on human life. For instance, since 2010, the EPA has used an average human life value of over $9 million when balancing the costs and benefits of certain regulations.
Local juries particularly affected by wrongful actions that take a life within their own communities may render awards to deter and compensate that greatly exceed these federal averages. We have handled wrongful death cases with recovery values ranging from $75 million for the Olympic Pipeline Explosion, $50-plus million for the Tesoro Refinery explosion, $12.5 million for the domestic violence death of the wife of Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, and more. Washington courts have been protective of jury determinations on damages, including wrongful death, upholding awards of $22.5 million. See Joyce v. Wash. St. DOC, 116 Wn. App 569 (2003), aff’d 155 Wn.2d 306 (2005).
Wrongful death awards should reflect the dual purposes of such actions, an appropriate value of life lost with sufficient “sting” to deter unsafe conduct.