Thursday, January 10, 2008

Case Law Development: DNA Testing and Dismissal of Paternity Actions

The Supreme Court of Wyoming, in a case of first impression, interprets its state paternity statute regarding the impact of a DNA test excluding paternity.  The disputed provision reads: "If the scientific evidence resulting from the genetic tests conclusively shows that the defendant could not have been the father, the action shall be dismissed."  In this case, father submitted a genetic test excluding his paternity but took no further action.  Over a year later,  the laboratory contacted the court to notify it that it had discovered an error in the testing -- it had switched samples.  When it re-ran the test with the correct samples, defendant was established to have a 99.99% probability of paternity.  The court then ordered additional genetic testing, which also pointed to defendant as father.

Father argued that the court lacked any authority to order further testing because the statute required the court to sua sponte dismiss the paternity action once the first test had been submitted excluding him as father.  The court found otherwise:

The cases relied upon by RK do not, however, establish that the plain language of Wyo. Stat. Ann. ยง 14-2-111(f) mandates dismissal in the absence of an appropriate motion. The statute does not establish a timeframe for dismissal, nor does the statute require the district court to dismiss paternity cases on its own initiative. There was nothing to prevent RK from filing a motion to dismiss the paternity action, but RK did not file such a motion until after the court had received information undermining the reliability of the Test 1 results. Stated differently, at the time RK moved for dismissal, the genetic test had not "conclusively" established that RK was not the father. We also note that there is no requirement in the statute that dismissal be with prejudice. In the absence of a dismissal with prejudice, the State could have re-filed the action in August 1994 when the laboratory's error became known. In sum, RK asks this Court to read far more into the statute than is justified by its plain text. The court's failure to dismiss the action, sua sponte, did not violate the plain language of the statute. Accordingly, the paternity action was still pending at the time the laboratory revealed its mistake.

Father also argued that the trial court had applied the paternity statute in effect at the time of the decision rather than at the time the action was filed. The earlier statute had been more generous in the range of evidence permissible to rebut a paternity test. Thus, father argued, the trial court improperly excluded testimony of an expert witness.  The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court erred in this exclusion but found it harmless error in the context of the two subsequent genetic tests establishing father's paternity.

RK v. State ex rel. Natrona County, 2008 WY 1 (January 8, 2008)
Opinion online (last visited January 9, 2008 bgf)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2008/01/case-law-deve-6.html

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