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Gillispie v. Beta Construction Co. (12/11/92), 842 P 2d 1272
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal correction
before publication in the Pacific Reporter. Readers are
requested to bring typographical or other formal errors to
the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K
Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, in order that corrections
may be made prior to permanent publication.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
KATHY A. GILLISPIE, as Personal)
Representative of the Estate of )
Gregory A. Gillispie, Jr.; and )
KATHY A. GILLISPIE and GREGORY ) File No. S-4952
A. GILLISPIE, SR., individually, )
) 3AN-90-8414 CI
) O P I N I O N
) [No. 3904 - December 11, 1992]
BETA CONSTRUCTION CO., DAVID )
DUNN; and STATE OF ALASKA, )
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION )
AND PUBLIC FACILITIES, )
Petition for Review from the Superior Court
of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial
District, Dana A. Fabe, Judge.
Appearances: Richard E. Vollertsen,
Atkinson, Conway & Gagnon, Anchorage, for
Petitioners. Peter J. Maassen, Michael W.
Seville, Burr, Pease & Kurtz, Anchorage, for
Before: Rabinowitz, Chief Justice, Burke,
Matthews, Compton and Moore, Justices.
RABINOWITZ, Chief Justice, concurring.
In this petition for review, we address the question of
whether a parent is entitled to assert an individual claim for
loss of society resulting from the death of his or her child.
Gregory Gillispie, Jr. was struck and killed by a construction
van driven by David Dunn, an employee of Beta Construction. The
estate of Gregory Gillispie, filed a wrongful death action
against Dunn, Beta, and the State of Alaska. Kathy Gillispie and
Greg Gillispie, Sr., Greg's parents, both asserted loss of
society claims arising out of the death of their fourteen year
old son. On cross motions for summary judgment, the superior
court granted Beta's motion and dismissed the Gillispies' loss of
society claims. We reverse.
Alaska's wrongful death statute, AS 09.55.580 (Supp.
1991), creates a dichotomy between actions in which the decedent
left dependents and actions in which the decedent did not. As we
[I]f the decedent is survived by a
spouse, child or dependent, the action is
brought on behalf of the statutory
beneficiary and damages are measured by the
loss to the survivors.1 The personal
representative is then a nominal party only
and holds the recovery in trust. On the
other hand, if the deceased is not survived
by the beneficiaries named in the statute,
the personal representative is the real party
in interest in the wrongful death action.
Damages are limited to the loss to the estate
and are distributed as other personal
property of the deceased.
In re Estate of Pushruk, 562 P.2d 329, 331 (Alaska 1977)
(footnote added). When the decedent is not survived by
dependents, the statute limits recovery to pecuniary loss. AS
09.55.580(a). The Gillispies, then, cannot claim loss of society
under the wrongful death statute.
The Gillispies, however, are not without recourse.
Another statute, AS 09.15.010, provides in part: "A parent may
maintain an action as plaintiff for the injury or death of a
child below the age of majority." We have not yet addressed
whether AS 09.15.010 creates a separate, independent parental
cause of action. We now hold that is does.
In addition to the plain language of the statute, we
draw support for this proposition from early precedent. Alaska's
first detailed civil code was enacted by Congress in 1900. 31
Stat. 321 (1900). Large portions of the code, including the
predecessor to AS 09.15.010, were drawn verbatim from the Oregon
civil code.2 In City of Fairbanks v. Schaible, 375 P.2d 201, 208
(Alaska 1962), we stated "it is presumed that [the statutes were]
adopted with the interpretation that had been placed upon [them]
by the Oregon Supreme Court prior to 1900."
The Oregon Supreme Court considered the same question
presented in this petition in Putman v. Southern Pacific R.R.
Co., 27 P. 1033, 1034-35 (Or. 1891). The court construed Hill's
Code 34 (the parent of AS 09.15.010) as supplementary to
Oregon's wrongful death statute. It held that 34 created in
the parent a "new and independent right of action"for the death
of a child. Putnam, 27 P. at 1034-35. See also Craft v. Northern
Pacific R.R. Co., 35 P. 250 (Or. 1894). In the absence of any
guidance from our legislature, we rely on our presumption that AS
09.15.010 carried the Putman court's construction when it became
law. We hold that AS 09.15.010 entitles a parent to sue for
Alaska Statute 09.15.010 had its roots in the common
law rule that a minor's labor belonged to his or her parents;
thus, an injury to the minor resulted in a loss to the parents.
W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts
125, at 934 (5th ed. 1984). The Oregon predecessor to AS
09.15.010 recognized this rule and modified it so that a parent
could recover the parent's loss caused by death as well as injury
of the child. Schleiger v. Northern Terminal Co., 72 P. 324, 326-
27 (Or. 1903). Although it is doubtless the case that the Oregon
predecessor to AS 09.15.010 was interpreted as pertaining to the
pecuniary loss of the parent, id., neither the Oregon nor Alaska
statute is prescriptive as to the measure of damages. Just as
loss of consortium in the spousal context has evolved from its
master servant origins4 to now recognize damages for the loss of
care, comfort, companionship and solace inherent in the marital
relationship, Schreiner v. Fruit, 519 P.2d 462, 465-66 (Alaska
1974), a parent's action for injury or death of a child can no
longer justly be limited to its master servant origins. Thus we
conclude that a parent's right of action under AS 09.15.010
includes the right to recover loss of society damages.5
The result we reach today comports with our earlier
case law. We have already held that a wife has the right to sue
for loss of "care, comfort, companionship and solace"resulting
from an injury to her husband, Schreiner, 519 P.2d at 466, and
that a child is entitled to loss of consortium damages when his
parent is tortiously injured. Hibpshman v. Prudhoe Bay Supply,
Inc., 734 P.2d 991 (Alaska 1987). To now hold that a parent is
not entitled to recover loss of society for the death of his or
her child would run counter to this line of precedent. Without
question, the death of one's own child is the greatest loss a
parent may suffer. It is far more than pecuniary; whatever
monetary disavantage a child's death may present to its parents
pales in comparison to the immense mental anguish, grief and
sense of loss that this event would inevitably cause. AS
09.15.010 is the appropriate vehicle for recognizing this loss.
The trial court's summary judgment order is REVERSED,
and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings in accordance
with this opinion.
RABINOWITZ, Chief Justice, concurring.
I agree with the majority's conclusion that the
Gillispies cannot claim loss of society damages for their child's
death under Alaska's wrongful death statute, AS 09.55.580 (Supp.
1991). Although I further agree with the majority that the minor
child's parents are not without recourse, I can not join the
majority in its reliance upon AS 09.15.010 and its conclusion
that this statute creates a separate, independent parental cause
of action for loss of consortium arising out of the death of a
child. Rather than attempting to resuscitate AS 09.15.010, I
conclude, as a matter of common law interpretation, that the non-
dependent parents of a minor decedent have a common law cause of
action for loss of their child's society and that this action is
not precluded, or preempted, by operation of our wrongful death
This conclusion logically follows from the court's
prior precedents. Schreiner v. Fruit, 519 P.2d 462, 466 (Alaska
1974), established that a wife has the right to sue for loss of
"care, comfort, companionship, and solace of her spouse"
resulting from an injury to her husband. Schreiner was followed
by Hibpshman v. Prudhoe Bay Supply, Inc., 734 P.2d 991, 994
(Alaska 1987) which held that a child had a cause of action for
loss of parental consortium. In rejecting the contention that we
should defer to the legislature rather than deciding this
question we observed:
Moreover, loss of consortium has been
repeatedly recognized as a cause of action
created by and developed by the courts. We
have long recognized our responsibility to
adapt the common law to the needs of society
as justice requires where the legislature has
Id. at 995 (footnote omitted).
Given our recognized obligation to develop the common
law, and the fact that loss of consortium is a cause of action
which has been created and developed by the courts, I fail to
perceive any persuasive reason why a non-dependent parent's right
to a claim for loss of consortium for the death of his or her
child should not be recognized. As the Ninth Circuit noted:
[F]ollowing Alaska law and based on the
reasoning of the Hibpshman case, the district
court could reasonably have concluded that a
parent's claim for damage to the parent -
child relationship is not sufficiently distin
guishable from spousal or children's consor
tium claims to warrant nonrecognition.
Scott v. United States, 884 F.2d 1280, 1282 (9th Cir. 1989); see
also Yako v. United States, 891 F.2d 738, 747 (9th Cir. 1989).
Furthermore, I would hold that our wrongful death
statute, AS 09.55.580 (Supp. 1991) does not preclude recognition
of the existence of an independent claim by a non-dependent
parent for loss of consortium arising from the death of his or
her minor child. On this point Haakanson v. Wakefield Seafoods,
Inc., 600 P.2d 1087, 1092 n.11 (Alaska 1979) is of particular
relevance. There we said:
We do not find the statute [Alaska's
wrongful death statute] to be in derogation
of the common law of Alaska because, if there
were no statute, we would in all probability
follow the lead of the United States Supreme
Court in Moragne v. States Marine Lines,
Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 90 S. Ct. 1772, 26 L. Ed.
2d 339 (1970), in which it established a
maritime wrongful death action . . . ."6
In the case at bar I would explicitly hold that non-
dependent parents have an independent cause of action for loss of
consortium based on the death of their minor child.
1. We held in Kulawik v. Era Jet Alaska, 820 P.2d 627
(Alaska 1991) that damages may also be measured by the additional
loss suffered by the decedent's estate which the statutory
beneficiaries did not stand to inherit because of the provisions
of the decedent's will.
2. The relevant Oregon statute in place at the time read:
A father, or in the case of his death or
desertion of his family, the mother, may
maintain an action as plaintiff for the
injury of a child, and a guardian for the
injury or death of his ward.
Hill's Annotated Laws of Oregon, 34. Congress adopted
identical language when enacting the Alaska code. 31 Stat. 337
3. Beta cites to State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. v.
Wainscott, 439 F. Supp. 840, 842-43 (D. Alaska 1987), where the
district court for the district of Alaska held that AS 09.15.010
was only procedural, and did not confer a new right of recovery
in the parent. We choose not to follow the reasoning in
Wainscott because it fails to examine pre-1900 Oregon case law.
We disregard the dissent in Wainscott v. Ossenkop, 633 P.2d 237,
248 (Alaska 1981) (Connor, J., dissenting) for the same reason.
4. See Prosser & Keeton, Torts 125 at 931.
5. We note that there are a number of recent cases in which
parental consortium claims resulting from the serious injury or
death of a child have been recognized. Howard Frank, M.D., P.C.
v. Superior Court, 722 P.2d 955 (Ariz. 1986); Sizemore v. Smock,
400 N.W.2d 706 (Mich App. 1986); Norvell v. Cuyahoga County
Hosp., 463 N.E.2d 111 (Ohio App. 1983). Shockley v. Prier, 225
N.W.2d 495 (Wis. 1975).
6. See also Hanebuth v. Bell Helicopter International, 694
P.2d 143, 145 (Alaska 1984) (rejecting the proposition that
wrongful death statutes should be construed narrowly because they
are in derogation of the common law).