Edonna v. Heckman (CA1 5/3/11)

The question here is whether an adopted child can sue for his natural father’s death. The Court of Appeals says “no.”

Edonna’s stepfather had adopted him years before his natural father died in a motorcycle crash with Heckman; in the interim, though, they had grown close and the stepfather had, apparently, gone out of the picture. When Edonna sued for the wrongful death Heckman moved to dismiss. The trial court denied it

The Court of Appeals reverses. It points out that the wrongful-death statute does not allow for weighing how close a relationship was.  By naming spouses, children, and parents as beneficiaries, the statute leaves out others who may have a close association with the decedent. While the statute does not define “child,” an adoption statute (8-117) says that upon adoption the original parent-child relationship “is completely severed and all the legal rights, privileges, duties, obligations and other legal consequences of the relationship cease to exist, including the right of inheritance . . .”  The right to sue for wrongful death is a legal consequence of the relationship.

Edonna cited an intestate-succession statute (14-2114) to the effect that adoption by the spouse of a natural parent has no effect on child’s right to inherit from the other natural parent. But the statute also says “An adopted person is the child of that person’s adopting parent or parents and not of the natural parents.” In Arizona the right to sue for wrongful death does not involve inheritance, it’s a claim for the beneficiary’s own loss. Edonna could inherit from his natural father but so could a lot of other people; that does not mark them all as statutory beneficiaries.

(link to opinion)