Emergency Legislation Enacted to Amend Wrongful Death Act
On March 30, 2012, the District of Columbia enacted emergency legislation to change the statute of limitations applicable to wrongful death claims. Pursuant to the legislation, the limitations period applicable to wrongful death claims has been changed to two years. Additional legislation is required for this change to become permanent.
By way of background, prior to the enactment of the emergency legislation, the District of Columbia’s Wrongful Death Act, D.C. Code §§ 16-2701 to -2703, provided that a one-year limitations period applied to wrongful death claims. Specifically, the Wrongful Death Act stated, in relevant part, that a wrongful death claim must be brought “within one year after the death of the person injured.” D.C. Code § 16-2702.
On March 6, 2012, Councilmembers Marion Barry and Phil Mendelson introduced the Wrongful Death Act of 2012 (B19-717) which would permanently amend the Wrongful Death Act by changing the statute of limitations applicable to wrongful death claims from one year to two years. No hearings have been held, or are currently scheduled, on this permanent legislation. [Update: A public hearing was held on this permanent legislation on May 18, 2012.]
On March 20, 2012, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to adopt three measures to expedite the proposed change to the statute of limitations. First, it unanimously approved the Wrongful Death Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2012 (R19-405) (“Resolution”). The Resolution declared an emergency to permit passage of emergency legislation changing the limitations period. The Resolution stated that emergency legislation is necessary to allow families of the victims of preventable shootings which occurred in March 2010 to proceed with their claims in federal District Court against an assault weapons manufacturer. The Resolution further stated that “[t]he District of Columbia and only 3 other states have a one-year statute of limitations” for wrongful death claims and that changing the limitations period is appropriate because it will provide families of victims of wrongful death with additional time to retain legal counsel and to investigate their claims before filing suit.
Second, pursuant to the Resolution, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the Wrongful Death Emergency Act of 2012 (B19-727). This emergency legislation was signed by the Mayor on March 30, 2012, and became effective immediately upon the Mayor’s approval because emergency legislation is not subject to a Congressional review period. The emergency legislation, which is now designated as Act 19-338, will remain in effect for not more than 90 days.
Third, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the Wrongful Death Temporary Act of 2012 (B19-728). The purpose of this temporary legislation is to serve as a “stop-gap” during the interim period between expiration of the emergency legislation and the effective date of permanent legislation (if enacted). This temporary legislation is scheduled for a final reading by the D.C. Council on April 17, 2012. [Update: The temporary legislation was approved by the D.C. Council on final reading and then, on April 29, 2012, by the Mayor.]
[Update: In July 2012, additional emergency legislation was enacted to fill a brief gap between the expiration date of the above-mentioned emergency legislation and the effective date of the above-mentioned temporary legislation.]
In light of these developments, legislation permanently changing the statute of limitations applicable to wrongful death claims from one year to two years seems very likely to be approved by the D.C. Council and the Mayor and to become law unless Congress intervenes. [Update: Permanent legislation was enacted and became law in 2012.]