Torts-Wrongful Death Claim of Natural Son Barred by Adoption

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Edonna v. Heckman, __Ariz. Adv. Rep. __, 1 CA-CV 10-0402 (App. Div. I, May 3, 2011) (J. Swanson)

NATURAL BORN SON OF DECEDENT DOES NOT HAVE STANDING TO BRING WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM WHERE HE WAS ADOPTED BY STEP-FATHER BEFORE NATURAL FATHER DIED THUS LEGALLY SEVERING PARENTAL RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURAL FATHER

Plaintiff's natural father divorced his mother and his mother eventually remarried. Mother's new husband and plaintiff's step-father legally adopted plaintiff. Thereafter mother divorced second husband, son became and adult and reestablished his relationship with his natural father. When his natural father was killed in an automobile collision, plaintiff sued the adverse driver for wrongful death damages. The defendant moved to dismiss under rule 12 (b)(6) of the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure claiming plaintiff could not state a claim for relief because once adopted he no longer had standing to bring a claim for the wrongful death of his natural father. The trial court denied the motion, a trial was held and plaintiff received a verdict for $40,000. Defendant appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed.

First the court of appeals recognized that a wrongful death claim is controlled entirely by statute (ARS sec. 12-612). While this statute allows a child to bring a wrongful death claim for the loss of a parent it does not define “child” or allow for a qualitative evaluation of the relationship between the decedent and the plaintiff to establish a right to sue.

However, ARS sec. 8-117 expressly states that when a decree of adoption is issued the relationship between the child and his natural parent “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.” Hence, because the right to bring a wrongful death action is the “legal consequence” of the parent-child relationship the adoption statute eliminates plaintiff's right to sue for wrongful death here.

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