Four years ago, Rhonda Ellis made the long drive from Anacortes to Olympia with her daughter, Makayla. The grieving mother knocked on as many doors as she could, seeking justice for her Joy Boy. That’s what people called her son, Joshua Ellis.
“He was one of the most amazing men on planet earth,” Rhonda Ellis said. “And I don’t just say that because I’m his mom.”
Joshua Ellis, his wife, Vanessa, and their 8-month-old son, Hudson, were killed in April 2015, when a 105-foot slab of concrete fell from a construction site at a Bonney Lake overpass and crushed the cab of the family’s truck.
Demolition of the bridge at state Route 410 wasn’t scheduled for that day, according to documents obtained after the incident. Later, a subcontractor tasked with the work — a company that was previously cited for multiple safety violations in Washington and Oregon — was removed from the project. Some have questioned the flagging practices employed that day. Eventually, the state Department of Labor and Industries issued fines totaling nearly $87,000 against several contractors.
“Everyone I conferred with has said that day didn’t have to happen,” Ellis said.
But, she says, despite the mounting evidence that the family’s death was avoidable — she couldn’t take anyone to court to get to the bottom of what happened. That’s because state law prohibits parents from filing wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of their adult children who aren’t financially dependent on them, even if they’re unmarried. In Ellis’ case, because her son’s entire family was killed, nobody could legally pursue action on their behalf.
That’s about to change for future families.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill on Friday that gives parents back their agency, Ellis says.
“When the kids had been tragically killed, it was almost as if their death didn’t mean anything,” she said. “As a mom, I felt like my voice was taken. I have a right to ask questions. I have a right to hold someone accountable for my son’s death. The law didn’t give me that voice.”
Applause erupted as Inslee signed the bill, which goes into effect July 28. “Today we’re righting a wrong that made it impossible for families to seek justice,” Inslee said.
Larry Shannon, government affairs director for the Washington State Association for Justice, said the bill addresses two provisions in the law. It allows parents to pursue legal action on behalf of their adult children if they can prove “significant involvement” in their lives. That involvement may include maintaining constant contact, attending birthdays or providing temporary housing.
“It’s not any one thing, it’s a number of things,” Shannon said. “It would be unique to your relationship with your child.” He added that the changes are anchored in existing case law to keep estranged family members from abusing the system.
The new bill also reverses a statute — passed more than a century ago as part of a sweeping package of discriminatory legislation — that barred nonresidents of the U.S. from accessing the courts for wrongful death cases.
The new law brings Washington state in line with most other states that already provide legal remedies for parents of adult children who die as a result of negligence, Shannon said. His civil justice advocacy organization represents trial lawyers to protect the rights of their clients.
“We can no longer accept any kind of legislation rooted in anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment," said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill. Hasegawa was the lead sponsor for Senate Bill 5163, which faced opposition from the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) and trade groups representing local governments.
Opponents argued the change would cultivate unfair, litigious actions against hospitals, cities and counties.
Tim Pfarr, a spokesman for the WSHA, said in a statement that the law will have unintended consequences.
“We were disappointed that the bill did not take a balanced approach to this issue,” he wrote. “While we agree that those at fault should be held accountable in the event of a wrongful death, the law does not hold defendants liable in a fair manner.”
For example, he said, hospitals found to be partially at fault in a wrongful death suit could face full financial responsibility.
“Those found to be at fault for a wrongful death should be held liable, but this law places hospitals in an unfair position, which we’re worried could impact access to health care in communities across our state,” Pfarr said.
But proponents for the change say it’s long overdue. The Office of the Attorney General estimates the change could increase wrongful death cases by about 20 percent. Shannon said that amounts to roughly 15 cases per year.
Following unsuccessful attempts to change the law in 2008 and 2010, the issue was tabled until last year, when it narrowly failed to garner support. Shannon credits the energy from eight families, who were actively involved in the process this session, and the support of many more for giving the legislation the push it needed.
“It’s not easy to do this. People come down and relive the worst day of their life,” Shannon said. “It’s the families who got this done.”
Ellis is relieved that she and other parents who share similar stories of tragedy can put this battle behind them. Sharing every aching detail during several hearings was emotionally exhausting, she said, but it’s the reason the legislation prevailed.
“We stood tall and told our story with courage,” she said. “I believe it was a miracle.”
And the miracle was indicative of Joshua and Vanessa — youth pastors who changed people’s lives for the better, Ellis said. The family continues to change lives even after their deaths, she said through tears.
On Friday, Ellis stood alongside the governor with her now 13-year-old daughter, Makayla, who knocked on all those doors with her mom four years ago.
Ellis prays nobody will ever experience the pain she’s felt since her son’s needless death. But if someone does, she stressed, they now have a voice.
“A loss is enough.”