August 12, 2015

Equitable Estoppel

The law does not look favorably upon trickery. This is exemplified by Evidence Code § 623, which states that "whenever a party has, by his own statement or conduct, intentionally and deliberately led another to believe a particular thing true and to act upon such belief, he is not, in any litigation arising out of such statement or conduct, permitted to contradict it." This legal doctrine is known as equitable estoppel.

To prove equitable estoppel, a party needs to show that (1) the party to be estopped must know the facts; (2) the estopped party must intend that his conduct shall be acted upon, or must act in a way that causes the other party to believe that was his intent; (3) the party asserting estoppel must be unaware of the true facts; and (4) he must detrimentally rely on the other party's conduct. Estate of Bonanno (2008) 165 Cal.App.4th 7, 22. 

This doctrine was recently raised in an unpublished appellate opinion.

Janene Curtis discovered as an adult that she was the daughter of famous actor Troy Donahue, whose real name was Merle Johnson. Previously, at birth, she had been adopted.

When Mr. Donahue passed away, Ms. Curtis was told by a close friend of Mr. Donahue that the drug Vioxx might have caused Mr. Donahue's death. Ms. Curtis then hired a New York law firm to participate in the class action lawsuit against Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant that makes Vioxx. Ms. Curtis was later advised to open a probate in California. Since Ms. Curtis lived in Arizona and probate needed to be filed in California, she asked Eve O'Neill, Mr. Donahue's sister, to open probate in California on her behalf.

Ms. Curtis then negotiated a settlement in the Vioxx case and the estate of Mr. Donahue reaped $190,000. Later it was discovered by Ms. O'Neill's attorney that Ms. Curtis had been adopted at birth. An adoption severs normally severs the parent-child relationship whereby inheritance rights are cut off. Probate Code § 6451. The attorney then filed a petition to have Ms. O'Neill be declared the sole heir of Mr. Donahue's estate and to approve the Vioxx settlement. Naturally Ms. Curtis objected to the petition.

Ultimately, after two appeals, it was determined that Ms. O'Neill was equitably estopped from challenging Ms. Curtis' claim to the assets of the Donahue estate, i.e. the Vioxx settlement.

The California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court's decision that "(1) Ms. O'Neill either actually knew of the legal impediments to Curtis inheriting or that she was culpably negligent for failing to learn those facts; (2) Ms. O'Neill intended Ms. Curtis to act upon O'Neill's assertions that she would prosecute the Vioxx litigation on behalf of Ms. Curtis and then give her all the proceeds; (3) Ms. Curtis was unaware that O'Neill would renege; and (4) Ms. Curtis relied to her detriment on Ms. O'Neill's conduct.