Back to Home Page
Andrew Bergh's Profile
Practice Areas
Mission Statement
Frequently Asked Questions
Andrew Bergh's Publications
Legal Resources on the Internet
Andrew Bergh's Contact Information

June 17, 2011
Adoption complicates suit over father's death
Special to the Journal

Nome Edonna loved Edward Hintz like a father.

That's certainly no surprise since Edward was, in fact, Nome's biological dad. So when Edward tragically died in a car crash while riding his motorcycle, his natural son's grief and sense of loss were very real. Because Nome had years earlier been legally adopted by his former stepfather, however, his subsequent wrongful death suit against the other driver hit a huge roadblock.

Nome's biological parents, Edward and Donna Hintz, had divorced when he was only four years old. Following their break-up, Nome's relationship with his father continually evolved.

For several years, Nome spent weekends and holidays with his father because they lived in the same state. When Edward remarried and moved to Connecticut, there was no father-son contact for over a year. But after Edward moved to Arizona, Nome, who was nine years old at the time, started spending summers with his dad. When the summer visits for some reason stopped six years later, Nome only saw his father several times a year during school holidays.

In the meantime, Donna Hintz had also remarried. When Nome was 13 years old, his stepfather formally adopted him to ensure that he would be “taken care of” both financially and medically. The adoption apparently took place with Edward's blessing.

Donna's remarriage eventually soured, ending in divorce when Nome was 17 years old. Although it's unclear how this affected Nome's relationship with his former stepfather, the bottom line is that nobody took any steps to “undo” the adoption.

For an unknown length of time, Nome and his natural father only had sporadic contact. But when Nome became a “young adult” (whenever that takes place), their interaction increased and they grew quite close over the course of the next 12 years. Nome evidently remained on good terms with his mother, too, because in 2001 he legally changed his last name to “Edonna,” which he created by joining his natural parents' first names.

The fateful accident took place in October 2005. Nome apparently had no siblings because his wrongful death suit, filed against the other driver, William Heckman, in Maricopa County Superior Court, claimed that he was the “sole surviving beneficiary of Edward.”

“After father dies in car crash, surviving natural son later brings wrongful death claim against responsible driver.” As straightforward as that may sound, some quirky laws in the Grand Canyon State ultimately got in Nome's way.

In round one, Heckman moved to dismiss Nome's suit. Nome wasn't a “proper wrongful death beneficiary,” said the defendant, as a consequence of his earlier adoption. But the trial court disagreed, relying on Nome's reference to an Arizona statute that “specifically extend(s)” the right of an adopted child to “assert their rights” upon the death of a natural parent.

Refusing to throw in the towel, the defense moved for reconsideration.

According to Heckman, the trial court had wrongly relied on a law that only pertains to the right to inherit. Under Arizona's wrongful death statute, said the defendant, an offspring can't sue for the wrongful death of a natural parent where the parental relationship has been “severed.” Since that was the net effect of the earlier adoption, Heckman argued, Nome had no claim.

When the trial court again disagreed, the case proceeded to trial. Nome prevailed on liability, and a Maricopa County jury awarded him $40,000 in damages.

In my world, a $40,000 verdict for the wrongful death of a parent seems low. But it was still too high for Heckman (or more likely his liability insurer), who filed a timely appeal.

If Nome had high hopes, they were dashed last month by an Arizona appeals court.

Assuming I've still got your attention, I could lose it real fast by trying to explain the appeals court's analysis. (It would also require me to read its opinion at least three more times before I fully understood it.)

So I won't. Under the short version, the appeals court agreed with Heckman that the inheritance statute didn't apply, and that Nome couldn't sue for the wrongful death of his natural father on account of the prior adoption. As a result, the $40,000 award was reversed.

It's not true that every story must teach a lesson. But if you're an adopted child and still on good terms with your natural parents, it might be a good idea to research your local laws.