A nice and simple little matter of statutory interpretation from the Washington Supreme Court today. In In re the Estate of Blessing (Wash., April 5, 2012), the Court interpreted the word “stepchildren” under Washington’s wrong death statute, RCW 4.20.020. The statute provides that a wrongful death action:
shall be for the benefit of the wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, child or children, including stepchildren, of the person whose death shall have been so caused.
Here, Audrey Blessing and Carl Blaschka were married in 1964. At the time, Blessing had three children from her previous marriage and Blaschka had four children from his previous marriage. Blessing never adopted the Blashka children, but the couple raised all seven children together.
Blaschka died in 1994. Blessing later remarried. In 2007, Blessing was killed in a car accident. Blessing’s estate brought a wrongful death action against the driver who caused the accident. The Blaschka children then sought a ruling that they qualified as “stepchildren” under the wrongful death statute in connection with the estate’s claim.
The question for the Supreme Court, therefore, was whether stepchildren remain stepchildren following the death of their biological parent. Notably, the Court does not discuss divorce or any other termination of marriage other than the fact of a predeceased biological parent.
The Court held that stepchildren remain stepchildren following the death of their biological parent. In so holding, the Court noted that the statute does not define “stepchildren” and that, given the lack of definition, there is really no reason to exclude stepchildren following the death of their parent. Of course, there are situations where stepchildren will have little or no contact with their stepparent following the death of their biological parent. The Court acknowledges this fact, but states:
Any concerns over the result or regarding which stepchildren should be entitled to recover in a wrongful death suit are more appropriately factored into any damages determination.
Instead of setting a complete bar to recovery, therefore, the Court concluded that the vagaries of stepchild-stepparent relationships are better considered on a sliding scale of damages calculations.