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Wrongful death suit arising from state fair stage collapse may break legal ground for same-sex couples
Posted in Estate Planning

A wrongful death suit filed by the same-sex partner of a victim of the state fair stage collapse may break legal ground in the treatment of same-sex couples in Indiana. Reuters reported that Tammy VanDam of Wanatah, Ind., 42, was killed by the collapse of the stage after a high blast of wind whipped through the grandstand area just minutes before the country duo Sugarland was scheduled to perform. Her same-sex partner Beth Urschel, 49, was severely injured, according to Reuters.

Ms. Urschel and Ms. VanDam obtained a civil union in Hawaii, but that arrangement is not recognized under Indiana law. The two were together for 10 years, according to the Indianapolis Star. A wrongful death suit was filed on Friday, Aug. 19, on behalf of the estate of Ms. VanDam and her same-sex partner Ms. Urschel, in LaPorte County Circuit Court. The Indianapolis Star reports that the suit seeks $50 million for Ms. VanDam’s estate and $10 million plus punitive damages for Urschel. The defendants include the state of Indiana and three companies, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The lawsuit gives the LaPorte Circuit Court the opportunity to rule on issues affecting the legal rights of same-sex couples. In Indiana, only next of kin or a spouse of the victim can benefit from a wrongful death suit. "Just because her spouse happens to be a woman and she happens to be a woman doesn’t make it any less painful, any less egregious and any less compensable," said Ms. Urschel’s attorney. In addition to the wrongful death claim, the litigation also aims to get Ms. VanDam’s body, which is being held at the morgue because Indiana does not acknowledge the right of Ms. Urschel to retrieve it.

This will not be the first time that an Indiana court addresses legal issues arising from same-sex marriages/civil unions solemnized in other jurisdictions.  In late 2009, in In re Marriage of Tara Ranzy and Larissa Chism, the Marion County Superior Court denied the divorce of two women married in Canada, concluding it would violate Indiana law.  In statements to the media, the judge stated he was sympathetic to the plight of the women but said it was for Indiana lawmakers to remedy the situation, not the courts.

Other states have more directly dealt with the issues currently before the La Porte County, Ind., Court.  In the 2005 decision Langan v. St. Vincent's Hosp. of N. Y., the New York Court of Appeals found that New York law precluded a same-sex partner, who had been joined with the decedent in civil union, from receiving wrongful death benefits.  The Court determined the law did not violate Equal Protection Clauses of the United States and New York Constitutions, as the partner failed to show that law did not have legitimate governmental purpose. 

Then in 2007, in Matter of Langan v. State Farm Fire & Cas., the New York Court of Appeals again addressed similar issues.  There, the Court held that parties to a Vermont civil union were not legal spouses under New York Workers' Compensation Law.  As such, the decedent's partner was not entitled to assert a death benefits claim.  Also, in the 2008 matter of Bashaway v. Cheney Bros., the Florida Court of Appeals held that the same-sex partner of a motorist who claimed to be injured in an accident could not assert a claim for loss of consortium.  The Court found that Florida law prohibited same-sex couples from marrying, which meant that such legal rights as would flow from marriage, such as the right to sue for loss of consortium, would likewise not be recognized in Florida. 

However, in the 2005 case of Armijo v. Miles, the California Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in dismissing a domestic partner's wrongful death action because a 2004 amendment to the California wrongful death statute applied retroactively and afforded the partner standing to sue. While it is not clear how the La Porte County Court will handle the wrongful death suit filed on behalf of the estate of Ms. VanDam and her partner Ms. Urschel, the case presents the Indiana Court with an opportunity to address issues that could break legal ground in the treatment of same-sex couples in the state.

If you have questions about these issues, contact the Estate Planning Practice Group at Bingham Greenebaum Doll.

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