Updated at 4:43 p.m.
New legislation before the District of Columbia Council would extend the statute of limitations to file wrongful death lawsuits in local courts from one year to two years after the person's death.
The Wrongful Death Act of 2012 (PDF), introduced last week by councilmembers Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), would change the time limits on filing wrongful death actions for the first time in the city's history.
Garret King, Barry’s committee director, said an attorney who had been representing the families of victims killed in a series of fatal shootings in Southeast Washington in March 2010 – known as the South Capitol Street murders – proposed the idea.
The attorney, local solo practitioner Daniel Wemhoff, said in a phone interview this afternoon that he told Barry's office starting in October about the difficulty he was having doing case research under the tight time constraints. He said a review of other wrongful death statutes nationwide revealed only one other jurisdiction, Tennessee, with a similar one-year statute of limitations.
"I pitched his office and told him we really need this," Wemhoff said, adding, "D.C. needs to catch up."
The measure would bring the District closer to its peer jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia, which, with a few exceptions, offer three- and two-year statutes of limitations, respectively. King said Washington’s one-year statute of limitations puts the city in the minority nationwide.
“I think it’s a good idea because it’s difficult to conduct a thorough and meaningful investigation within the one-year time period,” said William Lightfoot, a former councilmember and name partner at Washington personal injury firm Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot.
Seth Price, name partner of local personal injury firm Price Benowitz, said the one-year limit is “forcing people to rush to file or choose not to file.” Price added that “one year is really not a lot by the time somebody gets to you and you start due diligence.”
The city’s wrongful death law dates back to 1885, according to Douglas Melcher, a Washington attorney. The law has been amended since then, but the statute of limitations has always been one year, he said.
A criminal trial is underway in District of Columbia Superior Court against five defendants charged in the South Capitol Street violence. A series of shootings in late March 2010 left five people dead and nine wounded. The trial involves shootings on March 30 that killed three people and wounded six others.
At least one wrongful death lawsuit has been filed to date. Nardyne Jefferies, the mother of a 16-year-old girl killed in the March 30 shootings, is suing the city and several city agencies for wrongful death and other claims in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Lead plaintiffs’ counsel John Mercer of Washington’s Mercer Law Associates could not immediately be reached today for comment.