Legislators in New York have once again approved a bill related to wrongful death damages, sparking speculation about a potential veto.
Legislation aiming to amend New York’s age-old 1847 law pertaining to the permissible damages in wrongful death lawsuits has been passed with significant support from lawmakers, yet again.
The fate of the revised Grieving Families Act, however, hangs in the balance as Governor Kathy Hochul’s acceptance is uncertain. She had previously vetoed a similar bill in 2022 after her proposed amendments were not accepted. Hochul has advocated for a comprehensive analysis of the economic implications of the suggested alterations to the existing law.
Though the 2023 version of the bill addresses some, not all, of Hochul’s concerns from the previous version, it lacks an accompanying financial impact study.
The existing wrongful death law in New York doesn’t permit claims for pain and suffering, mental distress, or loss of companionship by surviving family members. It confines damages to quantifiable monetary losses and restricts compensation in wrongful death cases to the immediate family of the deceased, namely a child, parent, spouse, or the representative of the estate.
For years, critics have strived to broaden the scope of the law, arguing for the inclusion of emotional damages like grief or distress and loss of affection and companionship in wrongful death cases. They also propose the inclusion of extended family members like siblings or cousins among those eligible for damages and wish to extend the current two-year statute of limitations in wrongful deaths to be applied retrospectively.
Advocates claim that these changes would align New York with other states, asserting that it’s a long-due reform. A report by the New York Public Interest Research Group revealed that 47 other states already let their courts evaluate the worth of lost relationships, and 20 states recognize claims for grief and mental distress caused by a wrongful death. New York and Alabama stand alone in not allowing either, NYPIRG stated.
After numerous attempts to pass reform legislation, lawmakers managed to get the bill approved in both the Senate and Assembly last June, only for Hochul, a Democrat, to veto the bill in January.
Hochul tried to strike a balance by suggesting that grief and emotional damages should be limited to parents losing a child under 18 and proposed a cap on damages. She also recommended not applying the changes retrospectively and not extending the statute of limitations. Furthermore, she proposed excluding medical malpractice claims from any revision. The bill sponsors, however, believed her amendments were excessive.
In her veto message, Hochul emphasized the need for further investigation into the issue. Eventually, she aligned herself with businesses, insurers, and healthcare firms, as well as mayors who cautioned that the modifications would put significant strain on the state’s economy and lead to increased liability insurance costs for businesses, municipalities, drivers, and the medical community.
The bill’s Democratic sponsors expressed deep disappointment over the veto. They brushed off Hochul’s assertion of the bill needing more research. “The reality is that this legislation has undergone more scrutiny than nearly any other bill we’ve passed during our tenure in Albany,” they argued.
In May, the same sponsors, State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D/WFP-Manhattan) and Assembly Member Helene Weinstein (D-Queens), reintroduced the Grieving Families Act, with amendments. Lawmakers quickly passed the revised version, with 54-8 votes in the Senate and 147-2 in the Assembly. The updated bill now awaits Hochul’s signature.
Sponsors affirm that the new bill addresses the governor’s concerns by explicitly stating the retroactive effect of the bill, limiting the recoverable damages, shortening the extension of the statute of limitations, and clearly determining who qualifies as a close family member entitled to recovery.
The permitted damages are much like those in the previous bill. They encompass “loss of love, society, protection, comfort, companionship, and consortium resulting from the deceased’s death.”
The 2023 version broadens the circle of potential wrongful death claimants to include spouses or domestic partners, children, foster children, step-children, step-grandchildren, parents, grandparents, step-parents, step-grandparents, siblings or anyone acting “in loco parentis” to the deceased person. However, cousins or other relatives would not be eligible.
While the 2023 version is not entirely retrospective, it applies to any cause of action “emerging on or after July 1, 2018, regardless of the filing date of the claim.”
Unlike Hochul’s proposition, the new bill does not exempt medical malpractice cases nor does it establish a limit on damages.
Supporters and detractors of the previous bill remain divided on the 2023 version.
The sponsors’ rationale for the new law is that the existing law forces New York families, grieving the loss of a loved one, to endure an additional blow when they learn that the state’s civil justice system doesn’t compensate them for their emotional loss.
Senator Hoylman-Sigal highlighted that New York lags behind 47 other states regarding wrongful death laws. “By focusing solely on economic loss, we’ve denied countless family members due consideration for their loved ones,” he stated. “The courts are obliged to undervalue lives in wrongful death cases involving non-breadwinners, resulting in a disproportionate negative impact on people of color, women, children, seniors, and New Yorkers with disabilities.”
Supporters argue that the current law, which only compensates for financial losses, disproportionately affects children, seniors, women, and people of color, who often have no income or significantly lower income.
Supporters include families affected by gun violence and families of workers killed on the job as potential beneficiaries of the law changes.
“The families left in emotional distress due to horrifying gun violence incidents like the Tops shooting in Buffalo deserve recognition for their pain,” said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
“Our current wrongful death law endangers low-income workers by protecting employers from repercussions when they neglect to ensure workplace safety. The Grieving Families Act will guarantee justice for families of workers, irrespective of their income, race, gender, or age,” stated Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
Opponents don’t object to assisting families affected by wrongful deaths but worry about the financial burden the proposed expansion of the law would place on the state’s economy, leading to higher costs for businesses, municipalities, and the medical industry.
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