Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Court of Appeal:
Majority: Lack of Heirship of Unacknowledged Child Precludes Suit Despite DNA Evidence of Paternity;
Dissenter: Equal Protection Clause Won’t Tolerate Disparate Treatment of ‘Nonmarital Children’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A child who was born out of wedlock, was never acknowledged by her father, and did not judicially establish paternity during his lifetime, has no standing to sue for his wrongful death, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has held in a 2-1 decision, declaring that the governing statute is not violative of equal protection.
The child’s lack of heirship under the laws of intestacy—which was established in a previous Court of Appeal decision—bars the wrongful death suit by her, the majority concluded.
Justice Richard M. Aronson of Div. Three wrote for himself and Acting Presiding Justice William W. Bedsworth in affirming a judgment adverse to Jacqueline Stennett, who sued as guardian ad litem for her daughter, Alexandra Stennett, then a minor and now an adult. The child, the majority said, unlikely suffered from the death of a man with whom she had not had contact.
Justice Eileen Moore dissented on equal protection grounds, arguing that “[b]ecause modern DNA testing can readily establish parentage, laws that discriminate against nonmarital children are now seldom justified.” She asserted that the majority erred in saddling Alexandra Stennett with burdens that would not have been imposed if her parents had been married.
The father, Amine Britel, a world-class bicyclist, was riding his bike in Newport Beach when struck by a texting drunk driver, Danae Marie Miller, and died at the scene. He was unmarried.
An action was brought on behalf of Alexandra Stennett—who was shown by DNA testing to be Britel’s daughter—against Miller and others. Then-Orange Superior Court research attorney Timothy J. Gibbs, sitting as a judge pro tem, granted judgment on pleadings to the defendants and ordered the wrongful death action dismissed based on a lack of standing.
That dismissal was required, Aronson said, in light of his division’s April 23, 2015 decision in Estate of Britel. There, an opinion by Justice Raymond Ikola affirmed an order denying Stennett heirship and declaring Britel’s mother to be his sole heir.
The guardian ad litem contended that paternity was established, pursuant to Probate Code §6453, based on Britel having “openly held out the child as his own.” Ikola said substantial evidence supported the conclusion of Orange Superior Court Judge Randall J. Sherman that Britel had not done so.
Meaning of ‘Children’
In Friday’s opinion, Aronson declared that Alexandra Stennett’s inability to inherit means that her cause of action for wrongful death must fall. He explained although Civil Procedure §377.60 provides that a decedent’s “children” are among those eligible to bring a wrongful death action, the legislative history of the statute indicates that it is limited to those “children” who are “entitled to take from the decedent under California’s intestate succession laws.”
California’s original wrongful death statute, enacted in 1962, created a cause of action only in favor of “heirs,” Aronson recited. He noted that early cases established, however, that the children of a man with a surviving spouse were eligible to sue based on being in the narrow category of persons who could potentially be heirs, although the only actual heir, under California community property laws, was the widow.
In 1992, the jurist recited, the Legislature repealed and reenacted the statute, now expressly permitting an action by an decedent’s “children.” He said lawmakers acted on the recommendation of the California Law Revision Commission which noted that the rule already in place was that children have a right to maintain such a cause of action, explaining:
“The wrongful death statute would be clearer, and would conform to case law, if revised to codify this rule.”
Link Still Exists
Aronson cited the 1998 Court of Appeal decision in Cheyanna M. v. A.C. Nielsen Co. by this district’s Div. One which declared that under the revamped §377.60, “standing to bring a wrongful death action remains linked to the intestacy laws.”
Given that Alexandra Stennett “has no right to inherit from Britel under California’s intestacy statutes,” as held in Estate of Britel, “it follows that she does not have standing under section 377.60 to pursue a wrongful death action for his death,” Aronson said, adding:
“Simply put, the fact that Britel is her biological father, without more, is not enough to create wrongful death standing.”
There would be such standing, he pointed out, if Jacqueline Stennett had obtained a judicial determination of Britel’s paternity during his lifetime, but chose not to do so.
(She said she wanted Britel “to participate” as a parent “when he was ready and by his own choice,” and did not “want to force his hand.”)
Unfairness to Kin
If standing on the part of Alexandra Stennett were to be recognized, Aronson remarked, it “would be patently unfair because it would categorically deprive Britel’s mother and siblings of standing to sue for his wrongful death.” Under §377.60, he said, a parent or siblings have standing to sue for wrongful death only “if there is no surviving issue of the decedent.”
“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.”
Later in the opinion Aronson said:
“The notion that a person who almost certainly suffered no cognizable damages from the decedent’s death could, simply by filing suit, prevent persons who likely did suffer such damages from ever having their day in court, is wholly incongruous and contrary to the legislative purpose of section 377.60.”
Addressing other issues that were raised, he wrote:
“We also reject the appellant’s equal protection argument. California’s wrongful death standing rules do not categorically exclude nonmarital children. They confer standing on a variety of children—both marital and nonmarital—if they satisfy certain criteria concerning their relationship with the decedent during his lifetime. This is not a case where the state has created an insurmountable barrier to nonmarital children; to the contrary, a nonmarital child has multiple statutory avenues for establishing he or she has a right to inherit from the decedent under California’s intestate succession laws and thus has wrongful death standing.
“Nor do California’s wrongful death standing rules illegally discriminate on the basis of gender. A state may validly impose different requirements for establishing natural parent status for birth mothers and biological fathers because mothers and fathers are not similarly situated when it comes to their role in becoming parents.”
“Due to modern DNA testing, a nonmarital child can easily establish whether he or she is a ‘child’ of a decedent (even after the parent’s death). But under the majority’s interpretation of the wrongful death statute, a nonmarital child must overcome burdens to establish standing that are not required of other children. The nonmarital child must rely on the father to declare parentage during his lifetime, or rely on the mother to fortuitously file a paternity action before the father’s death. These burdens are not substantially related to an important government purpose, given the ready access and reliability of modern DNA testing. Thus, I would hold that the wrongful death statute, as it is being applied here, violates the equal protection clause.
“I would find that under these circumstances the plain meaning of the word ‘children’ in the wrongful death statute should control. There is a conclusive DNA test that proves the decedent Amine Britel was the father of [Alexandra Stennett]. In this case it is not necessary to rely on intestacy laws in order to interpret the wrongful death statute.”
The majority opinion sets forth in a footnote:
“Prior opinions have used the term ‘illegitimate children.’ We use the term ‘nonmarital children’ instead because we do not wish to suggest that children born to unmarried parents are in any way inferior to children born to married parents. This opinion uses the term ‘nonmarital children’ in the same sense that prior opinions have used the term ‘illegitimate children.’ ”
Moore also referred in her dissent to “nonmarital children” (as did Ikola in Estate of Britel, as well as Justice Richard D. Fybel in his concurring opinion in that case.)
Both opinions filed Friday denominate Alexandra Stennett as “A.S.” although she has been identified in related litigation by her true name and is now an adult. The opinions allude to Jacqueline Stennett as “Jackie.”
Friday’s opinion came in Stennett v. Miller, 2019 S.O.S. 1788.
Wendy C. Lascher of the Ventura firm of Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP represented Jacqueline Stennett. Curt Cutting and Emily V. Cuatto of the Burbank firm of Horvitz & Levy were joined by Mark A. Weinstein and Mark M. Rudy of the downtown Los Angeles form of Veatch Carlson acted for Miller.
Miller pled guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced on Feb. 28, 2012 to four years in prison. She was released Aug. 15, 2013 on parole, after 18 months of incarceration.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company