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Court Bars Suit over Lover’s Death

August 18, 1988

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Citing the state’s interest in promoting marriage, the California Supreme Court refused Thursday to allow a man who saw his lover killed in a car crash sue for emotional distress and loss of her companionship.

Although a lover’s emotional injuries may be as real and foreseeable as those suffered by a spouse or a parent, who have the right to sue, society would suffer ″an intolerable burden″ if suits were not limited to relationships recognized by law, the court ruled.

The 6-1 ruling did not repeal the court’s landmark 1976 decision allowing one member of an unmarried couple to bind the other to an implied promise of financial support.

″The state has a strong interest in the marriage relationship,″ wrote Justice Stanley Mosk for the majority. ″To the extent unmarried cohabitants are granted the same rights as married persons, the state’s interest in promoting marriage is inhibited.″

He also said allowing a suit by a lover ″would impose a difficult burden on the courts,″ which would have to decide whether the relationship was ″stable and significant″ and contained ″the emotional attachments of the family relationship.″ Such an inquiry would also threaten a ″massive intrusion into the private life of the partners,″ Mosk said.

In dissent, Justice Allen Broussard said there was no legal or social reason to prevent one member of a couple living together to sue for emotional damage caused by seeing the other partner injured.

Such emotional injuries are to be expected, ″given the widespread reality and acceptance of unmarried cohabitation,″ Broussard said.

He also noted that the ruling effectively forbids such lawsuits by members of homosexual couples, who cannot legally marry.

The suit was filed by Richard Elden, who was injured in a December 1982 crash in Pasadena that killed Linda Ebeling, with whom he shared a home.

Elden sued Robert Sheldon, the driver of the other car, accusing him of running a red light. He sought damages not only for his physical injuries, but for his emotional trauma caused by seeing Ms. Ebeling killed, and for loss of love, companionship, emotional support and sexual relations.

His lawsuit for physical injuries was later settled, but the second claim was dismissed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Xanthos, whose ruling was upheld by a state appeals court.

Those rulings, and Thursday’s Supreme Court decision, rejected rulings by a few appellate courts allowing suits by one member of a couple who claimed a ″stable, significant relationship,″ equivalent to marriage.

Mosk said the number of unmarried couples living together had increased dramatically, and that there was no doubt ″some of these couples are bound by emotional ties as strong as those that bind formally married partners.″

However, he said a ban on lawsuits by unmarrieds was justified by public policy, and by the need to limit the range of lawsuits that can be filed for an act of negligence.

Married couples ″are granted significant rights and bear important responsibilities toward one another which are not shared by those who cohabit without marriage,″ including duties of financial support, Mosk said.

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