Levy v. Louisiana

Decision Date20 May 1968
Docket NumberNo. 508,508
PartiesThelma LEVY, etc., Appellant, v. LOUISIANA, etc., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 89 S.Ct. 65.

Norman Dorsen, New York City, for appellant.

William A. Porteous, III, New Orleans, La., for appellees.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant sued on behalf of five illegitimate children to recover, under a Louisiana statute.1 (La.Civ.Code Ann. Art. 2315 (Supp.1967)) for two kinds of damages as a result of the wrongful death of their mother: (1) the damages to them for the loss of their mother and (2) those based on the survival of a cause of action which the mother had at the time of her death for pain and suffering. Appellees2 are the doctor who treated her and the insurance company.

We assume in the present state of the pleadings that the mother, Louise Levy, gave birth to these five illegitimate children and that they lived with her; that she treated them as a parent would treat any other child; that she worked as a domestic servant to support them, taking them to church every Sunday and enrolling them, at her own expense, in a parochial school. The Louisiana District Court dismissed the suit. The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that 'child' in Article 2315 means 'legitimate child,' the denial to illegitimate children of 'the right to recover' being 'based on morals and general welfare because it discourages bringing children into the world out of wedlock.' 192 So.2d 193, 195. The Supreme Court of Louisiana denied certiorari. 250 La. 25, 193 So.2d 530.

The case is here on appeal (28 U.S.C. § 1257(2)); and we noted probable jurisdiction, 389 U.S. 925, 88 S.Ct. 290, 19 l.Ed.2d 276, the statute as construed having been sustained against challenge under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

We start from the premise that illegitimate children are not 'nonpersons.' They are humans, live, and have their being.3 They are clearly 'persons' within the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 4

While a State has broad power when it comes to making classifications (Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S. 726, 732, 83 S.Ct. 1028, 1032, 10 L.Ed.2d 93), it may not draw a line which constitutes an invidious discrimination against a particular class. See Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 541—542, 62 S.Ct. 1110, 1113—1114, 86 L.Ed. 1655. Though the test has been variously stated, the end result is whether the line drawn is a rational one. See Morey v. Doud, 354 U.S. 457, 465—466, 77 S.Ct. 1344, 1349—1351, 1 L.Ed.2d 1485.

In applying the Equal Protection Clause to social and economic legistion, we give great latitude to the legislature in makig classifications. Williamson v. Lee Optical, 348 U.S. 483, 489, 75 S.Ct. 461, 465, 99 L.Ed. 563; Morey v. Doud, supra, 354 U.S., at 465—466, 77 S.Ct., at 1349—1351. Even so, would a corporation, which is a 'person,' for certain purposes, within the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause (Pembina Consol. Silver Mining & Milling Co. v. Pennsylvania, 125 U.S. 181, 188, 8 S.Ct. 737, 740, 31 L.Ed. 650) be required to forgo recovery for wrongs done its interests because its incorporators were all bastards? However that might be, we have been extremely sensitive when it comes to basic civil rights (Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, supra, 316 U.S., at 541, 62 S.Ct., at 1113; Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 669—670, 86 S.Ct. 1079, 1082 1083, 16 L.Ed.2d 169) and have not hesitated to strike down an invidious classification even though it had history and tradition on its side. (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873; Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, supra, 383 U.S. at 669, 86 S.Ct., at 1082.) The rights asserted here involve the intimate, familial relationship between a child and his own mother. When the child's claim of damage for loss of his mother is in issue, why, in terms of 'equal protection,' should the tortfeasors go free merely because the child is illegitimate? Why should the illegitimate child be denied rights merely because of his birth out of wedlock? He certainly is subject to all the responsibilities of a citizen, including the payment of taxes and conscription under the Selective Service Act. How under our constitutional regime can he be denied correlative rights which other citizens enjoy?

Legitimacy or illegitimacy of birth has no relation to the nature of the wrong allegedly inflicted on the mother. These children, though illegitimate, were dependent on her; she cared for them and nurtured them; they were indeed hers in the biological and in the spiritual sense; in her death they suffered wrong in the sense that any dependent would.5

We conclude that it is invidious to discriminate against them when no action, conduct, or demeanor of theirs6 is possibly relevant to the harm that was done the mother.7


1 'Every act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.

'The right to recover damages to property caused by an offense or quasi offense is a property right which, on the death of the obligee, is inherited by his legal, instituted, or irregular heirs, subject to the community rights of the surviving spouse.

'The right to recover all other damages caused by an offense or quasi offense, if the injured person dies, shall survive for a period of...

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