‘De Facto Mom’ Vindicated in Suit Over Tragic Collision

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – I’Maya Moreland was just 13 months old when her mom and Valerie Benning started dating in August 2007. A year and a half later, when her life was snuffed out by a pickup truck careening from a collision with a fire truck, I’Maya had been holding Benning’s hand, waiting to cross the street to see “Disney on Ice.”

(Image via Facebook)

Reviving Benning’s claim for emotional distress on Friday, an appeals court called it wrong for the lower court to have discounted Benning and the child’s “intimate, familial relationship.”

“A rational jury can find that Benning was a de facto mother to this child, and felt her loss as deeply as any parent facing that horrific event,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote for the New Jersey Appellate Division.

Joined by his two colleagues on the appellate panel, Fuentes said Benning should be given the chance to advance a claim under the 1980 case Portee v. Jaffee, which was the first to recognize emotional-distress liability in the Garden State.

When Portee was decided, the ruling explains, “the notion of same-sex couples and their children constituting a ‘familial relationship’ worthy of legal recognition was considered by a significant number of our fellow citizens as socially and morally repugnant and legally absurd.”

Today, however, an overwhelming number of Americans “unequivocally reject this shameful, morally untenable bigotry,” Fuentes wrote.

“Our laws, both legislatively and through judicial decisions, now recognize and protect the rights or LGBTQ people to equal dignity and treatment under law,” the 21-page opinion continues.

Robin Kay Lord, an attorney who represents Benning and her now wife, I’Asia Moreland, called Friday’s ruling bittersweet.

Benning is “delighted that the courts finally recognized the loss of her child, but it’s a shame that it took so many years and so many avenues of litigation,” Lord said.

An explanation from Mercer County Superior Court Judge William Anklowitz about why he ruled against Moreland at summary judgment is quoted in Friday’s ruling.

“There is a requirement that they have to be family,” Judge Anklowitz had said. “[Portee] talks about familial relationship but it didn’t say family-ish or something similar to a family.”

Attorney Lord noted that she took issue in particular with this language, and as well as Anklowitz’s description of her clients as “lovers.”

“I’m not sure if he meant to say that they were ‘family-ish,’” Lord said. “But they were not family-ish. They were family.”

Benning and Moreland have been married since 2014, but she testified that I’Maya was calling her “Mommy” just weeks into the relationship.

It took approximately three months for I’Maya’s brother, I’Zhir, to do the same. I’Zhir will be 15 this January on the 10-year anniversary of the crash.

The ruling notes that the deadly accident occurred outside the Sun Bank Arts Center in Trenton, now known as CURE Insurance Arena.

Though Judge Anklowitz cleared the arena of liability, attorney Lord says she is fighting to revive these counts as well based on the arena’s failure to follow through on plans of building a pedestrian overpass at the intersection.

“If they had build that overpass, this wouldn’t have happened,” Lord said.

Moreland’s appeal was joined by the Garden State Bar Association and the Amicus Garden State Equality, a LGBTQ rights organization.

In the group’s amicus brief, AGSE said the trial court discriminated against the couple by considering Moreland’s and Benning’s marital status to determine if I’Maya and Benning had a familial relationship.

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