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WEBER v. AETNA CASUALTY & SURETY CO. ET AL.

decided: April 24, 1972.

WEBER
v.
AETNA CASUALTY & SURETY CO. ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Marshall, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 176. Rehnquist, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 177.

Author: Powell

[ 406 U.S. Page 165]

 MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question before us, on writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Louisiana,*fn1 concerns the right of dependent unacknowledged, illegitimate children to recover under Louisiana workmen's compensation laws benefits for the death of their natural father on an equal footing with his dependent legitimate children. We hold that Louisiana's denial of equal recovery rights to dependent unacknowledged illegitimates violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68 (1968); Glona v. American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Co., 391 U.S. 73 (1968).

On June 22, 1967, Henry Clyde Stokes died in Louisiana of injuries received during the course of his employment the previous day. At the time of his death Stokes resided and maintained a household with one Willie Mae Weber, to whom he was not married. Living in the household were four legitimate minor children, born of the marriage between Stokes and Adlay Jones Stokes who was at the time committed to a mental hospital. Also living in the home was one unacknowledged illegitimate child born of the relationship between Stokes and Willie Mae Weber. A second illegitimate child of Stokes and Weber was born posthumously.

On June 29, 1967, Stokes' four legitimate children, through their maternal grandmother as guardian, filed a claim for their father's death under Louisiana's workmen's

[ 406 U.S. Page 166]

     compensation law.*fn2 The defendant employer and its insurer impleaded Willie Mae Weber who appeared and claimed compensation benefits for the two illegitimate children.

Meanwhile, the four legitimate children had brought another suit for their father's death against a third-party tortfeasor, which was settled for an amount in excess of the maximum benefits allowable under workmen's compensation. The illegitimate children did not share in this settlement. Subsequently, the employer

[ 406 U.S. Page 167]

     in the initial action requested the extinguishment of all parties' workmen's compensation claims by reason of the tort settlement.

The trial judge awarded the four legitimate children the maximum allowable amount of compensation and declared their entitlement had been satisfied from the tort suit settlement. Consequently, the four legitimate children dismissed their workmen's compensation claim. Judgment was also awarded to Stokes' two illegitimate offspring to the extent that maximum compensation benefits were not exhausted by the four legitimate children. Since such benefits had been entirely exhausted by the amount of the tort settlement, in which only the four dependent legitimate offspring participated, the two dependent illegitimate children received nothing.

I

For purposes of recovery under workmen's compensation, Louisiana law defines children to include "only legitimate children, stepchildren, posthumous children, adopted children, and illegitimate children acknowledged under the provisions of Civil Code Articles 203, 204, and 205."*fn3 Thus, legitimate children and acknowledged illegitimates

[ 406 U.S. Page 168]

     may recover on an equal basis. Unacknowledged illegitimate children, however, are relegated to the lesser status of "other dependents" under § 1232 (8) of the workmen's compensation statute*fn4 and may recover only if there are not enough surviving dependents in the preceding classifications to exhaust the maximum allowable benefits. Both the Louisiana Court of Appeal*fn5 and a divided Louisiana Supreme Court*fn6 sustained these statutes over petitioner's constitutional objections, holding that our decision in Levy, supra, was not controlling.

We disagree. In Levy, the Court held invalid as denying equal protection of the laws, a Louisiana statute which barred an illegitimate child from recovering for the wrongful death of its mother when such recoveries by legitimate children were authorized. The Court there decided that the fact of a child's birth out of wedlock bore no reasonable relation to the purpose of wrongful-death statutes which compensate children for the death of a mother. As the Court said in Levy :

"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." Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S., at 72.

[ 406 U.S. Page 169]

     The court below sought to distinguish Levy as involving a statute which absolutely excluded all illegitimates from recovery, whereas in the compensation statute in the instant case acknowledged illegitimates may recover equally with legitimate children and "the unacknowledged illegitimate child is not denied a right to recover compensation, he being merely relegated to a less favorable position as are other dependent relatives such as parents . . . ." Stokes v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 257 La. 424, 433-434, 242 So. 2d 567, 570 (1970). The Louisiana Supreme Court likewise characterized Levy as a tort action where the tortfeasor escaped liability on the fortuity of the potential claimant's illegitimacy, whereas in the present action full compensation was rendered, and "no tort feasor goes free because of the law." Id., at 434, 242 So. 2d, at 570.

We do not think Levy can be disposed of by such finely carved distinctions. The Court in Levy was not so much concerned with the tortfeasor going free as with the equality of treatment under the statutory recovery scheme. Here, as in Levy, there is impermissible discrimination. An unacknowledged illegitimate child may suffer as much from the loss of a parent as a child born within wedlock or an illegitimate later acknowledged. So far as this record shows, the dependency and natural affinity of the unacknowledged illegitimate children for their father were as great as those of the four legitimate children whom Louisiana law has allowed to recover.*fn7 The legitimate children and the illegitimate children all lived in the home of the deceased and were

[ 406 U.S. Page 170]

     equally dependent upon him for maintenance and support. It is inappropriate, therefore, for the court below to talk of relegating the unacknowledged illegitimates "to a less favorable position as are other dependent relatives such as parents." The unacknowledged illegitimates are not a parent or some "other dependent relative"; in this case they are dependent children, and as such are entitled to rights granted other dependent children.

Respondents contend that our recent ruling in Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532 (1971), controls this case. In Labine, the Court upheld, against constitutional objections, Louisiana intestacy laws which had barred an acknowledged illegitimate child from sharing equally with legitimate children in her father's estate. That decision reflected, in major part, the traditional deference to a State's prerogative to regulate the disposition at death of property within its borders. Id., at 538. The Court has long afforded broad scope to state discretion in this area.*fn8 Yet the substantial state interest in providing for "the stability of . . . land titles and in the prompt and definitive determination of the valid ownership of property left by decedents," Labine v. Vincent, 229 So. 2d 449, 452 (La. App. 1969), is absent in the case at hand.

Moreover, in Labine the intestate, unlike deceased in the present action, might easily have modified his daughter's disfavored position. As the Court there remarked:

"Ezra Vincent could have left one-third of his property to his illegitimate daughter had he bothered

[ 406 U.S. Page 171]

     to follow the simple formalities of executing a will. He could, of course, have legitimated the child by marrying her mother in which case the child could have inherited his property either by intestate succession or ...


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