The question in this appeal is whether an illegitimate child has a legally cognizable claim as a beneficiary
Tomas Telles died on October 20, 1965, as a result of a collision near Wapato, Washington, between his automobile and a tractor driven by respondent Garrett J. Wesselius. On December 7, 1965, Nellie Armijo, administratrix of the Telles' estate, commenced a wrongful death action against Wesselius. The original complaint named as beneficiaries Telles' eight children by a former marriage, all of whom are emancipated. A ninth child, Toni Marie Telles, approximately 1 year old, was not named as a beneficiary. In terms of this appeal it is undisputed that Toni Marie is the natural but illegitimate issue of decedent.
Appellant Toni Pacheco, mother of Toni Marie, petitioned for and was granted appointment as guardian ad litem of the child. She thereafter sought and obtained from the probate department of the Yakima County Superior Court an order directing the Telles' estate administratrix to join Toni Marie as an additional beneficiary in the wrongful death action. The administratrix's complaint was accordingly amended.
On November 18, 1966, respondents-Wesselius moved for a summary judgment dismissing Toni Marie as a beneficiary of the wrongful death action because of her illegitimacy. The motion was granted, and this appeal followed.
There is no significant dispute as to any material issue of fact. For purposes of this appeal the parties have agreed that (1) decedent and Toni Pacheco, the child's mother, lived together as husband and wife both before and after the birth of Toni Marie; (2) decedent paid all of the hospital and medical bills incurred as a result of the birth of the child; (3) until his death, decedent cared for, loved, and
In enumerating the beneficiaries of wrongful death actions, RCW 4.20.020 provides in part as follows:
In essence, we must decide whether the words "child or children" in the preceding statute are qualified sub silentio by the word "legitimate."
The Fatal Accidents Act of 1846, 9 & 10 Vict., c. 93, generally referred to as Lord Campbell's Act, is the germinant of all wrongful death statutes. W. Malone, The Genesis of Wrongful Death, 17 Stan. L. Rev. 1043 (1965). The first wrongful death statute in Washington Territory appeared in 1854. Civil Practice Act, Terr. Laws of 1854 § 496, at 220. This statute created a cause of action for the "widow, or widow and children, or child or children, if no widow, of a man killed in a duel...." (Italics ours.) The statute has been amended and expanded a number of times since then, but the words "child or children" have never been specifically qualified legislatively as to legitimacy. Furthermore, this court has not previously considered and construed the words "child or children" as used in the wrongful death statute. The issue now before us is thus one of first impression, and may be resolved by adopting what we individually and collectively consider to be the
Respondents contend, however, that we have in fact previously determined that the words "child or children," when used in statutes, will be considered to mean "legitimate child or children." In support of this thesis, a 52-year-old case is cited, Peerless Pac. Co. v. Burckhard, 90 Wn. 221, 155 Pac. 1037 (1916). The Peerless case, however, despite its language, in our view can no longer be said to support such a broad proposition, if in fact it ever could. Peerless has never been relied upon or even cited by this court for its pronouncements concerning interpretations of the words "child or children" in statutory enactments. Furthermore, research discloses no other Washington case, and none has been referred to this court, which states that the words "child or children" in a statute do not include illegitimate children. On the contrary, we have recently held that the words "child" and "children" in our nonsupport statute, RCW 26.20.030, apply to legitimates and illegitimates alike, despite the fact that no such requirement is explicitly spelled out by the legislature. State v. Russell, 68 Wn.2d 748, 415 P.2d 503 (1966). The Peerless case, supra, is insufficient authority upon which to base a rule regarding interpretation of the words "child" or "children" in the wrongful death statute of this state. The decision is simply one of those proverbial derelicts floating on the sea of the law, and should be treated accordingly.
Finally, respondents urge that the resolution sought by appellant would place decedents' estates at the mercy of unscrupulous charlatans who will pose as illegitimate children for the purpose of reaping undeserved benefits. Suffice it to say that such a problem does not exist in the instant case, as it is undisputed that Toni Marie is decedent's daughter and that she was under his care and support until his death. In addition, as to any individuals contending they are illegitimate children of a decedent, the burden of proof is theirs and is a heavy one — certainly no less onerous than in other litigated cases. We are convinced that the burden of proof, as in other lawsuits, will provide estates ample protection and should remove any reasonable fear of fraudulent claims.
The reason for this trend is clear. Society is becoming progressively more aware that children deserve proper care, comfort, and protection even if they are illegitimate. The burden of illegitimacy in purely social relationships should be enough, without society adding unnecessarily to the burden with legal implications having to do with the care, health, and welfare of children. As stated in In re Woodward's Estate, supra, at 118, 40 Cal. Rptr. at 784:
Significantly, a very persuasive argument can be made that a decision contrary to ours would deny appellant's daughter her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws, since there is no valid social reason, for purposes of welfare legislation, for distinguishing between members of the class "illegitimate children" and other members of the broader class "children" to which the members
The order granting respondents' motion for a summary judgment dismissing appellant's daughter as a beneficiary of the wrongful death action being brought for the death of her father is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
ROSELLINI, HUNTER, HAMILTON, and HALE, JJ., concur.
HILL, J. (dissenting)
I dissent. The legislature created the right of recovery for a wrongful death afforded by RCW 4.20.010, and in the legislature alone rests the power to determine which classes of persons are entitled to the benefits thereunder. Prior to the adoption of Lord Campbell's Act, no person, whether wife, husband, child (legitimate or illegitimate), or other relative of the victim of a wrongful killing could recover any damages therefor. Such a cause of action was unknown to the common law, and presently exists in this state only by virtue of the statute.
The majority has given some very cogent reasons why the legislature should amend the statute to give a right of action to the illegitimate children of one wrongfully killed. There are probably cogent reasons why it should not be so amended, including the difficulties that would arise in combatting false and fraudulent claims of paternity, the putative father being dead. It is unquestionably a matter which the legislature should consider; but, by the same token, it should require the exercise of judicial self-restraint. It is not for the court to crusade against any remaining vestiges of "Victorian or other notions of provincial morality"; the only question is did the legislature intend to grant a cause of action to illegitimate children under the terms of RCW
This court, in Hedrick v. Ilwaco Ry. & Nav. Co., 4 Wn. 400, 402, 30 Pac. 714 (1892), stated that:
4 Chitty's Eng. Stat. (6th ed.) 587, Lord Campbell's Act, 9 & 10 Vict. c. 93 (titled The Fatal Accidents Act, 1846), provided, in part:
Under that enactment, the term "child" included "a child en ventre sa mere (The George and Richard (1871), L.R. 3 A. & E. 466); but not an illegitimate child (Dickinson v. N.E. Rail. Co. (1864), 33 L.J. Ex. 91; Mews Digest, x. 105; Wilson's Trusts, Re (1865), 35 L.J. Ch. 243; Mews Digest, viii. 232)." See 4 Chitty's Eng. Stat. (6th ed.), p. 588, footnote (h).
Statutes based on Lord Campbell's Act have existed in this jurisdiction from its inception. The early history of this state's legislation on the subject was set forth in Whittlesey v. Seattle, 94 Wn. 645, 647, 163 Pac. 193 (1917), as follows:
The court, in Whittlesey, supra, held that, under the language of the statute at that time, no right of action was given in favor of surviving children for the wrongful death of their mother. The legislature quickly responded, and in Laws of 1917, ch. 123, p. 495, enacted the present wrongful-death statute. Sections 1 and 2 of that enactment, now codified as RCW 4.20.010 and 4.20.020, respectively, provide that:
No decisions of this court have been found bearing directly on the question presented, i.e. whether an illegitimate child is included within the meaning of the terms "child or children" as used in this statute and, therefore, can participate as a beneficiary in an action for the wrongful death of his father. In other jurisdictions, the almost unanimous weight of authority is that such a child cannot so participate. 72 A.L.R.2d 1235.
The applicable general rule of statutory construction in this state is that:
There being no contrary meaning indicated by the context of RCW 4.20.020, the conclusion seems logically to follow that an illegitimate child is not a child within the purview of the statute, and therefore may not participate as a beneficiary in a wrongful-death action.
Appellant contends, however, that the wrongful-death statute, being remedial in nature, should be construed liberally, citing Gray v. Goodson, 61 Wn.2d 319, 378 P.2d 413 (1963), Johnson v. Ottomeier, 45 Wn.2d 419, 275 P.2d 723 (1954); Cook v. Rafferty, 200 Wn. 234, 93 P.2d 376 (1939).
I can see no alternative, under the existing statutes and rules of construction just cited, but to hold that an illegitimate child may not be included as a beneficiary, under RCW 4.20.020, in a wrongful-death action.
Appellant recognizes that the weight of authority supports our interpretation of the statute, but urges that this court depart from these holdings, and cites as justification for such departure what he terms a trend toward the broader recognition of the rights of an illegitimate child.
In support of his argument that there exists such a trend, appellant cites, from our own jurisdiction, the cases of Wade v. State, 39 Wn.2d 744, 238 P.2d 914 (1951), and State ex rel. Smith v. Superior Court, 23 Wn.2d 357, 161 P.2d 188 (1945), wherein we recognized the right of a father to the custody of his illegitimate child.
Appellant also cites State v. Russell, 68 Wn.2d 748, 415 P.2d 503 (1966), wherein we held that the illegitimacy of a child was no defense in a prosecution of the father, under RCW 26.20.030, for nonsupport, and Peterson v. Eritsland, 69 Wn.2d 588, 419 P.2d 332 (1966), wherein this court sustained a contract between the mother and the putative father of an illegitimate child providing for the support of the child by the father as being in accord with public policy.
Under the 1965 enactment, it is sufficient if the father merely acknowledges the child in writing, no witnesses being required.
I note, parenthetically, that the statutes relating to descent and distribution are inapplicable to the question at bar. The written acknowledgment required by RCW 11.04.081 does not make the child legitimate for all purposes, but only "for purposes of intestate succession." RCW 11.04.081. Hence, even had decedent in this case acknowledged the child in writing, the child still would have been unable to participate as a beneficiary under the wrongful-death statute.
But most importantly, it should be noted that the "liberalization" of the illegitimate child's rights under the statutes of descent and distribution was effected by legislative enactment. Likewise, it is in the legislative branch of our government that any change in the rights of an illegitimate under the wrongful-death statutes must be initiated.
While it is true that this court, recognizing the injustice of the ancient doctrine of nullius filius has been quick to broaden the rights of illegitimates where permitted to do so by the enactments of the legislature (e.g. Wade v. State, supra; State ex rel. Smith v. Superior Court, supra; State v. Russell, supra, and Peterson v. Eritsland, supra), we have in no case gone beyond a reasonable construction of a particular enactment to attain a result clearly not intended by the legislature. We are bound to continue that policy in the present case.
I have carefully considered the remaining arguments advanced by appellant, the cases cited by him from other jurisdictions, and the legislative enactments relating to
I would affirm the judgment of the trial court.
WEAVER, NEILL, and McGOVERN, JJ., concur with HILL, J.
The first and last proviso of that enactment, in substance, survive in the present RCW 26.04.060 and 26.08.060. The second proviso was apparently repealed by Code of 1881, and is not a part of the present law of this state.