Court: Stepfather still a dad after divorce

Seattle attorney Matthew Bergman argued that the parent-child relationship—not the parents’ split-up—is what counts

Published in 2019 Washington Super Lawyers — July 2019

To Jo LeFebvre, Marvin Leren was simply her dad. Leren, who became her stepfather when she was 3 years old, would later walk her down the aisle and, throughout his life, would travel and share holiday dinners with her. But Leren, who contracted mesothelioma after decades of working around asbestos, died in 2015 in the midst of a lawsuit involving his illness, and the company he was suing said it shouldn’t have to pay LeFebvre the $975,000 awarded to his estate by the jury.

Why? Because LeFebvre’s mom and Leren divorced while she was in college, so Elementis Chemical contended that she was no longer Leren’s stepdaughter. Leren named LeFebvre as a beneficiary in his will, but under Washington law, wrongful-death suits can be brought only by spouses, children, stepchildren and dependent siblings.

Matthew Bergman, who practices at Bergman Draper Oslund in Seattle, believed the relationship between LeFebvre and Leren—not the divorce—was what should matter. He represented LeFebvre, 53, both at trial court and at the Washington State Court of Appeals. In late May, the appeals court ruled for LeFebvre. Had LeFebvre and Leren not been so close, Bergman says, the ruling might have gone differently.

“The relationship between Jo and her step dad figured prominently in the Court of Appeals’ opinion,” Bergman says. “So far as we know, this is the first verdict and ruling that recognizes the legal bond between stepparent and stepchild beyond the divorce of the parents.”

The other issue of contention was whether Elementis was the legal successor of the original company, Benson Chemical. The appeals court ruled that it was. Leren worked for 20 years at Z-Brick in Ballard, which was supplied with asbestos by Benson.

Observes Bergman, “This opinion upholds the legal principle that the love between parent and child is basic and everlasting and that the parenteral relationship is sustaining, even when the marriage is not.”

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