Glona v. American Guarantee Liability Insurance Company, s. 508 and 639

Decision Date20 May 1968
Docket NumberNos. 508 and 639,s. 508 and 639
Citation88 S.Ct. 1515,391 U.S. 73,20 L.Ed.2d 441
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 89 S.Ct. 66.

For dissenting opinion see 88 S.Ct. 1512.

William F. Wessel, New Orleans, La., for petitioner; Leonard J. Fagot, Marvin C. Grodsky and Benjamin E. Smith, on the brief.

David R. Normann, New Orleans, La., for respondents; Frank S. Normann and Margot Mazeau, on the brief. DJ Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought in the Federal District Court under the head of diversity jurisdiction to recover for a wrongful death suffered in an automobile accident in Louisiana. The plaintiff, a Texas domiciliary, was the mother of the victim, her illegitimate son. Had the Texas wrongful death statute1 been applicable, it would, as construed, have authorized the action.2 But sum- mary judgment was granted on the ground that under Louisiana law3 the mother had no right of action for the death of her illegitimate son. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the claim that the discrimination violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 379 F.2d 545. We granted the petition for a writ of certiorari, 389 U.S. 969, 88 S.Ct. 477, 19 L.Ed.2d 460, in order to hear the case along with Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68, 88 S.Ct. 1509.

Louisiana follows a curious course in its sanctions against illegitimacy. A common-law wife is allowed to sue under the Louisiana wrongful death statute. 4 When a married woman gives birth to an illegitimate child, he is, with a few exceptions, conclusively presumed to be legitimate.5 Louisiana makes no distinction between legitimate children and illegitimate children where incest is concerned.6 A mother may inherit from an illegitimate child whom she has acknowledged and vice versa.7 If the illegitimate son had a horse that was killed by the defendant and then died himself, his mother would have a right to sue for the loss of that property.8 If the illegitimate son were killed in an industrial accident at his place of employment, the mother would be eligible for recovery under the Louisiana Workmen's Compensation Act, if she were a dependent of his.9 Yet it is argued that since the legislature is dealing with 'sin,' it can deal with it selectively and is not compelled to adopt comprehensive or even consistent measures. See McLaughlin v. State of Florida, 379 U.S. 184, 191, 85 S.Ct. 283, 287, 13 L.Ed.2d 222. In this sense the present case is different from the Levy case, where by mere accident of birth the innocent, although illegitimate child was made a 'nonperson' by the legislature, when it came to recovery of damages for the wrongful death of his mother.

Yet we see no possible rational basis (Morey v. Doud, 354 U.S. 457, 465—466, 77 S.Ct. 1344, 1349—1350, 1 L.Ed.2d 1485) for assuming that if the natural mother is allowed recovery for the wrongful death of her illegitimate child, the cause of illegitimacy will be served. It would, indeed, be farfetched to assume that women have illegitimate children so that they can be compensated in damages for their death. A law which creates an open season on illegitimates in the area of automobile accidents gives a windfall to tortfeasors. But it hardly has a causal connection with the 'sin,' which is, we are told, the historic reason for the creation of the disability. To saythat the test of equal protection should be the 'legal' rather than the biological relationship is to avoid the issue. For the Equal Protection Clause necessarily limits the authority of a State to draw such 'legal' lines as it chooses.

Opening the courts to suits of this kind may conceivably be a temptation to some to assert motherhood fraudulently. That problem, however, concerns burden of proof. Where the claimant is plainly the mother, the State denies equal protection of the laws to withhold relief merely because the child, wrongfully killed, was born to her out of wedlock.


Mr. Justice HARLAN, whom Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice STEWART join, dissenting.

These decisions can only be classed as constitutional curiosities.

At common law, no person had a legally cognizable interest in the wrongful death of another person, and no person could inherit the personal right of another to recover for tortious injuries to his body.1 By statute, Louisiana has created both rights in favor of certain classes of persons. The question in these cases is whether the way in which Louisiana has defined the classes of persons who may recover is constitutionally permissible. The Court has reached a negative answer to this question by a process that can only be described as brute force.

One important reason why recovery for wrongful death had everywhere to await statutory delineation is that the interest one person has in the life of another is inherently intractable. Rather than hear offers of proof of love and affection and economic dependence from every person who might think or claim that the bell had tolled for him, the courts stayed their hands pending legislative action. Legislatures, responding to the same diffuseness of interests, generally defined classes of proper plaintiffs by highly arbitrary lines based on family relationships, excluding issues concerning the actual effect of the death on the plaintiff.2

Louisiana has followed the traditional pattern. There the actions lie in favor of the surviving spouse and children of the deceased, if any; if none, then in favor of the surviving parents of the deceased, if any; if none, then in favor of the deceased's brothers and sisters, if any; if none, then no action lies. According to this scheme, a grown man may sue for the wrongful death of parents he did not love,3 even if the death relieves him of a great economic burden or entitles him to a large inheritance. But an employee who loses a job because of the death of his employer has no cause of action, and a minor child cared for by neighbors or relatives 'as if he were their own son' does not therefore have a right to sue for their death.4 Perhaps most dramatic, a surviving parent, for example, of a Louisiana deceased may sue if and only if there is no surviving spouse or child: it does not matter who loved or depended on whom, or what the economic situation of any survivor may be, or even whether the spouse or child elects to sue.5 In short, the whole scheme of the Louisiana wrongful death statute, which is similar in this respect to that of most other States, makes everything the Court says about affection and nurture and dependence altogether irrelevant. The only question in any case is whether the plaintiff falls within the classes of persons to whom the State has accorded a right of action for the death of another.

Louisiana has chosen, as have most other States in one respect or another, to define these classes of proper plaintiffs in terms of their legal rather than their biological relation to the deceased. A man may recover for the death of his wife, whether he loved her or not, but may not recover for the death of his paramour.6 A child may recover for the death of his adopted parents. An illegitimate may recover for the wrongful death of a parent who has taken a few hours to acknowledge him formally, but not for the death of a person who he claims is his parent but who has not acknowledged him.7 A parent may recover for the death of an illegitimate child he has acknowledge, but not for the death of an illegitimate child whom he did not bother to acknowledge until the possibility of tort recovery arose.

The Court today, for some reason which I am at a loss to understand, rules that the State must base its arbitrary definition of the plaintiff class on biological rather than legal relationships. Exactly how this makes the Louisiana scheme even marginally more 'rational' is not clear, for neither a biological relationship nor legal acknowledgment is indicative of the love or economic dependence that may exist between two persons. It is, frankly, preposterous to suggest that the State has made illegitimates into 'nonpersons,' or that, by analogy with what Louisiana has done here it might deny illegitimates constitutional rights or the benefits of doing business in corporate form.8 The rights at issue here stem from the existence of a family relationship, and the State has decided only that it will not recognize the family relationship unless the formalities of marriage, or of the acknowledgment of children by the parent in question, have been complied with.

There is obvious justification for this decision. If it be conceded, as I assume it is, that the State has power to provide that people who choose to live together should go through the formalities of marriage and, in default, that people who bear children should acknowledge them, it is logical to enfore these requirements by declaring that the general class of rights that are dependent upon family relationships shall be accorded only when the formalities as well as the biology of those relationships are present. Moreover, and for many of the same reasons why a State is empowered to require formalities in the first place, a State may choose to simplify a particular proceeding by reliance on formal papers rather than a contest of proof.9 That suits for wrongful death actions to determine the heirs of intestates, and the like, must as a constitutional matter deal with every claim of biological paternity or maternity on its merits is an exceedingly odd proposition.

The Equal Protection Clause states a complex and difficult principle. Certain classifications are 'inherently suspect,' which I take to mean that any reliance upon them in differentiating legal rights requires very strong affirmative justification. The difference between a child who has been formally acknowledge...

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