The siblings of a 4-year-old Palmdale boy whose 2019 death was originally reported as a drowning — but later led to a criminal indictment of his parents — are not entitled to an expedited trial of their wrongful death suit against Los Angeles County by virtue of the ages of the minor plaintiffs, defense attorneys told a judge Wednesday, but lawyers for the children countered that their clients deserve an accelerated trial date in early 2023.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter A. Hernandez did not immediately rule, saying he was taking under submission a motion for an early trial date brought on behalf of the siblings of the late Noah Cuatro. He did not say when he would have a final decision.
Noah’s great-grandmother, Evangelina Hernandez, brought the case in July 2020 on behalf of herself and the boy’s minor siblings, a sister and two brothers. But in their court papers, lawyers for the county state that the question of whether the minor plaintiffs have the right to bring the suit is unresolved.
“Thus, importantly, plaintiffs will have standing … only if both their parents, also the surviving parents of the deceased sibling, are determined to have acted intentionally and feloniously and are thus divested of their intestate rights,” the county lawyers maintain in their court papers.
The county also has not yet received all documents in its petitions for the records of the minor plaintiffs, hampering the ability to mount a full defense, according to the county attorneys’ court papers. The expedited trial motion should be denied or delayed until the plaintiffs’ lawyers establish that Noah’s siblings have standing to pursue their wrongful death and survival claims, the county lawyers further argue in their court papers.
In court papers filed May 17, lawyers for the plaintiffs say the case should go to trial in early 2023 for the benefit of Noah’s siblings, who are ages 2, 4 and 9. The attorneys state in their court papers that the Code of Civil Procedure gives trial preference to any litigant in a personal injury or wrongful death case who is under 14 years old unless the court finds that the party “does not have a substantial interest in the case as a whole.” As time passes, it will be difficult for the young siblings to recall events, the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ court papers additionally state.
“Equally important, plaintiffs’ level of traumatization is more likely to be exacerbated by a looming trial date far off in the future, which can cause them a greater amount of triggers and trauma as they are kept stuck in the period of time of abuse and murder of their brother without the ability to begin to move forward and cope,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue in their court papers.
The state Probate Code states that anyone who “feloniously and intentionally” kills someone is not entitled to any property of the slain person, but only a final judgment of conviction is conclusive in such cases, the county lawyers state in their court papers.
Noah’s parents, Jose Maria Cuatro Jr. and Ursula Elaine Juarez, were ages 28 and 26, respectively, when the lawsuit was filed and are still awaiting trial in their criminal case. They were indicted in January 2020 on one count each of murder and torture in their son’s death. The indictment also charges Noah’s father with one count each of assault on a child causing death and sexual penetration of a child under 10, with the indictment alleging that the latter crime occurred on the same day Noah was attacked. Noah’s mother was additionally charged with one count of child abuse under circumstances likely to cause death.
If either of Noah’s parents were found to have not intended to kill Noah, that parent would be the exclusive person with standing to pursue a wrongful death cause of action, the county lawyers state in their court papers. If there has not been a final judgment of conviction, a judge may instead determine by a preponderance of evidence whether the killing was felonious and intentional and the burden of proof is on the party asserting such a claim, according to the county attorneys’ court papers.
Noah’s parents reported a drowning in their family pool in the 1200 block of East Avenue S around 4 p.m. July 5, 2019, but the boy’s injuries later raised suspicions about how he died. Medical staff found the trauma he had suffered inconsistent with drowning. He was taken first to Palmdale Regional Medical Center and then to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he was pronounced dead July 6, 2019.
Noah’s death occurred after multiple reports of abuse had already been made to the county Department of Children and Family Services, according to the suit.
“Instead of protecting Noah and his siblings, DCFS continued to place the children with their abusive parents, where the children continued to be abused over the course of several years,” the lawsuit alleges.
After Noah’s death, DCFS social workers made threats against Hernandez “in an attempt to silence her,” the suit alleges. They told Hernandez that if she made any public statements about Noah’s case and/or potential lawsuits, she would lose her request for guardianship of her other three great-grandchildren and would never see them again, the suit states.
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