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Trusts and Estates

Stennett v. Miller

Cite as G054989
Filed April 12, 2019, Fourth District

By Daniel C. Kim
Weintraub Tobin Chediak Coleman Grodin Law Corporation
www.weintraub.com

Headnote: Wrongful Death Actions – Standing

Summary: Biological Child of a Decedent Who Died Intestate Has No Standing to Pursue a Wrongful Death Action Where Status as Intestate Heir Cannot Be Established.

A.S. was ten years old when her biological father, Amine Britel, was killed by a texting drunk driver. She had never met her father and had no relationship with him. Britel also never openly held A.S. out as his own nor had A.S.’s mother ever established Britel’s paternity during his lifetime. Britel died intestate with no surviving spouse. A.S. filed a wrongful death action against the drunk driver and other defendants, which was stayed while A.S. litigated a probate action to declare herself Britel’s lawful heir under intestacy statutes. However, the probate court found that A.S. did not qualify as Britel’s heir, a ruling that was confirmed on appeal. Using the probate court ruling, the defendants successfully moved for judgment on the pleadings in the wrongful death action. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint for lack of standing.

The appellate court affirmed. Standing to bring a wrongful death action is limited to those identified in the wrongful death statute. Although the class of “children” is included in the statute, the court held that the legislative history of the statute confirmed that standing should only be conferred upon children who have a right to inherit under California’s intestate succession statutes. Since A.S. did not qualify as an intestate heir – because Britel had never held her out as his own nor had paternity been established during his life – she had no standing to assert a wrongful death claim. The court also rejected appellant’s equal protection arguments: (1) the wrongful death statute did not unlawfully discriminate against nonmarital children because they have multiple avenues for establishing heirship, and do not have an insurmountable barrier to doing so, and (2) the wrongful death statute did not unlawfully discriminate based on gender because the state may validly impose different requirements for establishing natural birth parent status among mothers and fathers, who are not similarly situated in becoming legal parents.

https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/G054989.PDF

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