Edonna v. Heckman – 5/3/2011

May 10, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That The Right to Bring a Wrongful Death Action is a Legal Incident of the Parent-Child Relationship That is Lost Upon Adoption.

Nome Edonna’s parents, Donna and Edward Hintz, divorced when he was four years old.  When he was 13 years old, his stepfather adopted him to ensure that he would be taken care of financially and medically.  Edward, Edonna’s biological father, agreed to the adoption.  In October 2005, Edward was killed when a car operated by William Heckman collided with his motorcycle.  Edonna filed a negligence and wrongful death action against the Heckmans, claiming that he was the “sole surviving beneficiary of Edward.”  The Heckmans moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, asserting that Edonna was not a proper wrongful death beneficiary as a consequence of the adoption.  After full briefing and oral argument, the trial court denied the Heckmans’ motion.  The case proceeded to trial, and the jury awarded Edonna $40,000 in damages.  The Heckmans timely appealed.

On appeal, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, concluding that the right to bring a wrongful death action is a legal incident of the parent-child relationship that is lost upon adoption.  In Arizona, an action for wrongful death is a creature of statute.  By its plain language, the statute, A.R.S. § 12-612(A), creates a limited class of beneficiaries who may sue. A.R.S. § 12-612(A) (“An action for wrongful death shall be brought by and in the name of the surviving husband or wife, child, parent or guardian, or personal representative of the deceased person for and on behalf of the surviving husband or wife, children or parents, or if none of these survive, on behalf of the decedent’s estate.”)  According to the Court of Appeals, only those persons expressly identified in the statute have standing to bring a wrongful death statute.  Although the wrongful death act does not define the term “child,” the Court of Appeals determined that A.R.S § 8-117 – which provides that on entry of the decree of adoption, the relationship of a parent and child the adopted child and the persons who were the child’s parents before entry of the decree of adoption “is completely severed and all the legal rights, privileges, duties, obligations and other legal consequences of the relationship cease to exist” –  unquestionably reveals that the legislature intended to exclude adopted children from being allowed to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of their biological parents.  In this case, the Court of Appeals held that Edonna lost the right to bring a wrongful death action on behalf of his biological father when he was adopted and therefore was not a proper wrongful death beneficiary.  The Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of the Heckmans.

Judge Swann authored the opinion; Judges Irvine and Portley concurred