Ride the Ducks, Seattle amphibious vehicle tour. • Photo by Ddgonzal
Ride the Ducks, Seattle amphibious vehicle tour. • Photo by Ddgonzal

The Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) is looking to organize against the Ride the Ducks company, which cited a 100-year-old discriminatory law to throw a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from a crash that killed five international students from Asia last September.

The parents of Ha Ram Kim, both residents of South Korea, filed the wrongful death lawsuit against the company in December after its amphibious tourist vehicle crashed into a charter bus last September. On the bus were dozens of international students, including Kim, on a tour around Seattle before they were supposed to start their classes at North Seattle College the following week.

In February, the Ride the Ducks of Seattle company, represented by the law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch, responded with a letter demanding withdrawal of the lawsuit. The letter cites Washington state wrongful death statute, RCW 4.20.020:

Every such 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. If there be no wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, or such child or children, such action may be maintained for the benefit of the parents, sisters, or brothers, who may be dependent upon the deceased person for support, and who are resident within the United States at the time of his or her death.

The Ride the Ducks of Seattle argues that the Kim family is ineligible to recover wrongful death damages as it does not satisfy the residency requirement of statute. The motion was joined by the Ride the Ducks International in March and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in May.

“In defending this case, we are simply following the state laws that govern these sorts of actions. We take absolutely no position on the merit of the law; that is solely on the province of the Washington State legislature,” wrote Patricia K. Buchanan, the lawyer representing Ride the Ducks of Seattle at Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch, in a statement.

The Washington State Legislature added the statute in 1917. Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, the founder and president of the Seattle chapter of CACA, said that the use of the statute in this case is outrageous.

“It was 100 years ago and at the time it was a racist environment, and it was wrong. We need to acknowledge that and repeal the law. I think that’s the right thing to do. Just like what they did finally after 60 years of the [Chinese] Exclusion Act,” said Tung-Edelman.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882, was a federal law banning the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. It was in the midst of one of the most restrictive immigration policies that the group that preceded CACA was born in 1895. The group changed its name to the Chinese American Citizen Alliance in 1915.

Tung-Edelman said CACA Seattle is taking a lead on organizing against the Ride the Ducks of Seattle to repeal the statute, which she said is unconstitutional. So far, she has reached out to one local group to collaborate in this effort.

“We need people who understand the Washington state laws and help repeal this. That’s why I’m looking forward to see who can be our ally. Who are the ones who understand the process?  We want awareness about what’s going on,” said Tung-Edelman. “In the API community, this was affecting us more than 100 years ago and it’s affecting us now. We need to gather the voices in our community as a strong one voice to say, this is wrong and we need to repeal this.”

Tung-Edelman said this law baffles her, especially since Washington state attracts a lot of tourists and international students every year. William Schroeder, the Spokane-based lawyer representing the Kim family, echoed Tung-Edelman’s sentiment.

“Seattle Duck is a tour company that actively seeks foreign tourists as clients. It is amazing in 21st century Washington that a tour company which relies upon foreign tourists as customers would take the position in federal court that it is immune from paying damages when it kills a foreign tourist because her family is foreign,” Schroeder wrote in an email.

Schroeder wrote that normally, in such a wrongful death claim, a family member of a victim, like Kim’s father for example, will describe the loss of love and companionship, the destruction of the parent-child relationship, and the permanent emotional distress and trauma.

“But, by operation of the foreigner exclusions, because Mr. Kim resides in Korea, his trauma and emotional distress simply do not count, and indeed his claim does not exist merely because he is a foreign resident,” Schroeder wrote.

According to the lawsuit, Kim’s parents flew from South Korea as soon as they heard the news about the crash. They held her hand as she died from her injuries. Four other international students were killed in the crash, and many more people injured.

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