This case presents two issued: does the nonmarital biological child of an absentee father who never openly held her out as his own have standing under Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60 (section 377.60) to sue for his wrongful death if she failed to obtain a court order declaring paternity during his lifetime? If she does not have standing, does section 377.60 violate the state or federal equal protection clauses? The California Court of Appeal concluded the child does not have standing under the circumstances presented here, and we find no equal protection violation.
The legislative history of California’s wrongful death statute establishes that standing to sue for wrongful death turns on whether the plaintiff has a right to inherit from the decedent under California’s intestate succession statutes. In this particular case, the child has no right to inherit from the decedent because he never openly held her out as his own and because she never obtained a court order declaring paternity during his lifetime. It follows that she does not have standing to sue for his wrongful death. Notably, a contrary conclusion would deprive the decedent’s parents and siblings of standing to sue for his wrongful death.
In California, a wrongful death cause of action “is wholly statutory in origin.” (Steed v. Imperial Airlines (1974) 12 Cal.3d 115, 119-120 (Steed).) As our Supreme Court has explained, “the Legislature intends to occupy the field of recovery for wrongful death.” (Justus v. Atchison (1977) 19 Cal.3d 564, 575, disapproved on other grounds in Ochoa v. Superior Court (1985) 39 Cal.3d 159, 171.) “Because it is a creature of statute, the cause of action for wrongful death ‘exists only so far and in favor of such person as the legislative power may declare.’” (Ibid.) Thus, “‘the right to bring such an action is limited to those persons identified’” in the wrongful death statute, section 377.60. (Scott v. Thompson (2010) 184 Cal.App.4th 1506, 1510; [“‘It is well settled that the right to bring an action for the wrongful death of a human being is limited to the persons described in [the statute]’”].) The category of persons eligible to bring wrongful death actions is strictly construed. (Cheyanna M. v. A.C. Nielsen Co. (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 855, 865.)
The wrongful death statute provides in pertinent part: “A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons . . . [¶] (a) The decedent’s surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.” (§ 377.60, subd. (a), italics added.) 3 This appeal turns on the meaning of the word “children” and whether the appellant qualifies as the decedent’s “child” under section 377.60, subdivision (a). This is a question of statutory interpretation.
Not all biological children necessarily meet the legal definition of “children.” (See, e.g., Prob. Code, § 6451 [adoption severs the relationship of parent and child unless certain requirements are satisfied]; see also Prob. Code, § 6453 [setting forth an exhaustive list of situations when a person is presumed to be a child’s natural parent, irrespective of biology]; Fam. Code, § 7611 [same].)
The California Court of Appeal concluded that Because appellant has no right to inherit from decedent under California’s intestacy statutes, it follows that she does not have standing under section 377.60 to pursue a wrongful death action for his death. Simply put, the fact that decedent is her biological father, without more, is not enough to create wrongful death standing. (See Phraner v. Cote Mart, Inc. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 166, pp. 168-171.) Thus, A.S., “‘“like any number of other persons who, in particular cases, may suffer . . . personal loss by the death of an individual, is without legal recourse absent specific statutory remedy.”’” (Id. at p. 170.)
The Appeal Court stated it 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. The Court also rejected 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.
The California Court of Appeal therefore affirmed the judgment dismissing the complaint for lack of standing.
If you are faced with such a similar legal situation involving complex legal issues, contact the Law Office of Robert Rodriguez immediately!
Robert Rodriguez has litigated well over 100 family law cases and civil litigation matters including personal injury motor vehicle cases, dog bite and slip & fall cases, breach of contract, defamation & invasion of privacy, fraud, unfair business practice, malicious prosecution, workplace and employment matters including sexual harassment, wrongful termination, wage & hour violations, discrimination pursuant to the FEHA, Gov’t Code §§ 12940 et seq., violations of the FMLA & Pregnancy Leave, Civil Rights discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the State of California and California federal district courts.
* Disclaimer – Robert Rodriguez is licensed to practice only in the State of California & this analysis is applied only under State of California law. Robert Rodriguez is also admitted to practice in the U.S. District Courts, Central, Northern & Eastern Districts of California.