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Stennett v. Miller (2019)

May 2, 2019

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In a case raising constitutional questions of equal protection and due process, Horvitz & Levy obtained affirmance of a trial court order dismissing a wrongful death action based on the plaintiff’s lack of standing.

Jacqueline Stennett became pregnant during a brief romantic relationship with Amine Britel and gave birth to a daughter, A.S. Britel told Jacqueline he wanted nothing to do with the baby. Britel never told anyone that he had a child, and never had any contact with A.S. Jaqueline decided not to seek a declaration of paternity or force Britel to be a part of A.S.’s life.

Britel was killed in an accident caused by defendant. Britel’s mother and A.S. brought competing wrongful death actions. The defendant settled with Britel’s mother and successfully moved to dismiss A.S.’s claim on the ground she was not Britel’s heir and so lacked standing to sue for his death. A.S. appealed from the judgment of dismissal.

Horvitz & Levy represented the defendant on appeal. In a published opinion, a majority of the Court of Appeal (Fourth District, Division Three) affirmed the dismissal. The majority held that the wrongful death statute grants standing to “children,” which courts have interpreted to mean children who would qualify as the decedent’s heirs under the Probate Code. Under the Probate Code, there are many ways for the children of unmarried parents to establish that they are heirs, including that paternity was declared during the decedent’s lifetime or the decedent “held out” the child as his own. A.S. could not satisfy any of those requirements. The majority rejected A.S.’s argument that the wrongful death standing requirements violate equal protection because they unfairly discriminate against children of unmarried parents. Agreeing with our arguments, the court held that A.S. was denied standing here not simply because her parents were unmarried, but because she could establish no relationship to decedent that would support a claim for loss of consortium. “We cannot imagine the Legislature intended to confer wrongful death standing on a child who had no relationship whatsoever with the decedent to the exclusion of the decedent’s other family members with whom he did have a relationship.”

One justice dissented, taking the view that the wrongful death statute violates equal protection by denying standing to biological children who would otherwise have standing if their parents had been married.

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