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Washington woman fought to prove her stepdad was her father

Jo LeFebvre with her dad Marvin Leren. (Courtesy photo)

Jo LeFebvre has only thought of one man as her dad for her entire life — Marvin Leren. He married her mother when Jo was just four years old.

“He and my mom divorced my senior year of high school, but just because they divorced [it didn’t matter], he was at everything,” LeFebvre said. “He was there when my son was born, he danced with me the first father dance at my wedding. He was there for every single thing that a father should be. He was always there … he was my dad.”

LeFebvre is now 53. Her stepfather died in 2015 from mesothelioma which he got after 20 years of working for a local company making bricks containing asbestos. When Leren got sick, he sued the British company that supplied the asbestos — Elementis Chemicals — but his illness was aggressive and his time was running out. Less than two months after he was diagnosed, Leren was gone.

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LeFebvre remembers sitting with him every night in his final days.

“He was in a tremendous amount of pain and you know I couldn’t really sit and have big long conversations with him,” LeFebvre said. “It was just to be there and hold his hand and try to make things as comfortable as I could.”

“He did share with me, ‘You know the attorney came about this mesothelioma … you have to go through with this, I’m not going to be there to fight the fight,’ so he said I would have to.”

That’s exactly what she did. But when a jury ordered the company to pay nearly a million dollars to Leren’s estate the company appealed arguing that LeFebvre had no right to the money because Leren and her mother had divorced decades earlier. Therefore, she was no longer his stepdaughter and had no claim.

In other words, the company argued that the man who had raised her and had been a part of her life for 40 years was not her father — stepparents didn’t count.

“It was pretty painful,” LeFebvre said. “I mean it’s something that you know I never even questioned and then when you have people questioning and cross-examining and questions like ‘Oh is he really your father?’ It’s pretty painful. Nobody else should be able to decide that … He never made me feel like anything other than his daughter.”

Stepparents in court

That appeal just played out a couple of weeks ago. The Washington State Court of Appeals disagreed with the company and ordered them to pay LeFebvre. The court said that divorce, in theory, does not sever the bond between a stepparents and stepchildren anymore that it does a parent and biological child.

Matt Bergman was Leren’s lawyer when he started the case and stayed on as LeFebvre’s lawyer to fight for her claim. He says this is a precedent-setting case.

“There’s never been a case like this in Washington state,” Bergman said. “The defendant – Elementis – relied on some cases from the 1800s out of Massachusetts that held that the wrongful death right was extinguished when the parents divorced.”

“Familial relationships have changed markedly in the last hundred years and it was important for the court to recognize the reality – that even though 50 percent of marriages, approximately, end in divorce the relationship between a parent and a stepchild is sustained,” he said.

LeFebvre knows her dad would be happy that she saw the case through.

“Definitely, he’d be proud of me,” LeFebvre said. “That’s exactly what he told me to do, ‘stand up for it, go through it – whether you win or lose just make that statement and be true to it.’ I had to, he deserved that much and more.”

“I would gladly give that company back all that money if they could give me back my dad — gladly,” she said.

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