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Stennett v. Miller - 34 Cal. App. 5th 284, 245 Cal. Rptr. 3d 872 (2019)

Rule:

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.

Facts:

This case arose out of the death of Amine Britel, who was killed by a texting drunk driver at the age of 41. Britel never married, and he died intestate. He was survived by his mother and his two adult sisters. A.S. was Britel's biological child. A.S. was conceived during a brief relationship between Britel and A.S.'s mother, plaintiff Jacqueline Stennett, when they were both graduate students. Several months after they parted ways, Jackie informed Britel of her pregnancy. Britel felt he never could tell his family about having a child out of wedlock, and he told Jackie that he wanted no contact with her or the baby. A.S. was 10 years old when Britel died in February 2011. She never met Britel or had any relationship with him. After Britel's death, Jackie filed a petition in California probate court to have A.S. declared Britel's heir under the Probate Code's intestacy provisions. Acting as A.S.'s guardian ad litem, Jackie also filed a wrongful death complaint against defendants, the driver who killed Britel and the driver's parents (collectively, the "Millers"), among others. The wrongful death action was stayed pending the heirship litigation in the probate court. The probate court held that A.S. did not qualify as Britel's heir.

Issue:

Did the nonmarital biological child of an absentee father who never openly held her out as his own have standing under Code of Civil Procedure § 377.60 to sue for his wrongful death if she failed to obtain a court order declaring paternity during his lifetime?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The appellate court held that a nonmarital biological child of an absentee father did not have standing under Code Civ. Proc., § 377.60, to sue for the wrongful death of her father because she had no right to inherit, as he had never openly held her out as his own and she had never obtained a court order declaring paternity during his lifetime. The court further held that there was no equal protection violation because California's wrongful death standing rules did not categorically exclude nonmarital children and it was not impermissibly discriminatory to have different requirements for establishing natural parent status for birth mothers and biological fathers.

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