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California man wins right to sue over partner's death

California man wins right to sue over partner's death

A California appellate court on Tuesday ruled that the state's recent changes in its domestic-partnership laws gave a gay man the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit in his same-sex partner's death, even though the partner died before the laws took effect. The decision was a victory for Charles Karel Bouley II, a radio talk-show host and author who goes by the single name Karel. Bouley, who is also an columnist, filed suit against Long Beach Memorial Medical Center 11 months after his partner, Andrew Howard, died there in May 2001; Bouley contends that the hospital's ineffective care was responsible. The hospital's attorneys responded that Karel did not have the right to sue under California law because he was neither married nor related to Howard. A lower court ruled in the hospital's favor last year. But Tuesday's decision overturned that ruling, asserting that updates to California domestic-partnership laws in 2002 and 2005 must be applied to Karel's case. Among other rights, the laws give registered domestic partners the legal standing to file a wrongful death lawsuit such as Karel's. "Yesterday was an important day for gay equality, but mostly it was an important day for Andy," Karel told, referring to his late partner of 11 years. "It was my job to take care of Andrew in his life, and it was my job to take care of him after his death. The law said that I could not do that, so I had to change the law." The ruling noted that the state law defining who had legal standing to file a wrongful death lawsuit was amended in January 2002 to include domestic partners, and that the law was in effect when Karel filed his lawsuit in May of that year. "We find that on the plain language of the statute and the legislative history, the 2002 amendments to [the law] were intended to operate retroactively," the judges wrote in their decision. The judges further wrote that the January 2005 changes to the law--part of the state's strengthening of its domestic-partnership laws--included language stating specifically that in the case of "a death occurring prior to January 1, 2002, a person may maintain a cause of action pursuant to this section as a domestic partner of the decedent by establishing [the appropriate legal standing]." The hospital may yet challenge the court's decision, and if that happens a final ruling from the state's supreme court may still be a year or longer away. But even if the hospital accepts Tuesday's ruling or Karel prevails in future challenges, he still faces the prospect of starting over in his battle against the medical center when the time comes to file the actual wrongful death lawsuit. "For the last four years I've been pointing the finger. Now we finally may get to look at where the finger is pointing instead of who's doing the pointing," Karel said. "This ruling takes the focus off me and puts it back on Andrew, where it belongs. We can finally look at the [merits of the] case [for wrongful death] instead of the fact that it's a domestic partner who's filing it."

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