Op-Ed: Kathy Hochul should sign the Grieving Families Act

Lever & Ecker, PLLC December 14, 2023 General

We’re at the end of another year and once again, Governor Hochul has just a few weeks to sign into legislation the Grieving Families Act to modernize our state’s undeniably archaic wrongful death statute that was first enacted in 1847. New York’s legislature wisely passed a revised version of the bill in January of this year, which once again seeks to bring a measure of justice and accountability by permitting compensation for grief and anguish to families of wrongful death victims.

But will she do it? She certainly should.

As it stands, New York’s wrongful-death laws value the life of a person who was a high-wage earner much more than one who was a low-wage earner, cementing past structural racism and valuing the lives of men much more than that of women, children, the disabled, and retirees, as well as people with differing abilities. The purpose of the Grieving Families Act is to help families who wrongfully lost someone by giving them what their loved one was worth, and not what they earned, by broadening the class of who can bring a wrongful death action, the type of damages they can seek, and the timeframe to do so. Without question, primary breadwinners aren’t the only people whose lives have financial value. In today’s day and age, are we really asking too much to have a law which properly values a stay-at-home parent’s life and contributions to their family?

Insurance lobbies, and those who benefit from them, attempt to build on fears of skyrocketing premiums and an exodus of physicians through their narrative against passage of the Grieving Families Act. Naturally, they fail to explain the cascading effects, not only upon families grieving the loss of a loved one through wrongful death, but on the larger community as a whole.

After a loved one dies by wrongful death, spouses and caretakers often lose their jobs, businesses and even their homes. If we want to have an unbiased conversation about financial burdens such as purportedly slightly higher insurance premiums, we need to look at the other side of the financial equation – inevitable government assistance for relatives of wrongful death victims.

Of course, the objections are easily overcome and are merely talking points offered by medical, insurance and other special-interest lobbies. The truth of the matter is that our citizens and legislators want this people-first law enacted as soon as possible. This is evidenced by the fact that the bill passed both houses of the New York State legislature with overwhelming support (nearly unanimously, in fact), two years in a row.

There’s a saying in the legal community that regulations are written in blood. It’s unfortunate, but true. Without the threat of swift and decisive legal action and damages, bad actors will continue to victimize the innocent.

No amount of money will make up for the loss of a child, spouse, or parent. New Yorkers are asking our governor to enact a law that will stop families from being victimized twice – first when their loved one is killed through no fault of their own and second when the law kills their hope for accountability in their loved one’s wrongful death.

But we’ve been let down by Governor Hochul before.

Last year, at the 11th hour, Hochul vetoed the Grieving Families Act, on the basis that the bill would “broaden the class of beneficiaries” eligible to recover damages and extend the statute of limitations on wrongful death cases. Hochul further wrote that because compensable damages under the Act would now include emotional anguish, these “broad and perhaps, overlapping categories of damages may result in confusion for the judges, juries and litigants.”

And yet, every other state in the union except New York and Alabama have somehow figured out how to navigate the “confusion” brought on by allowing their citizens to receive compensation for emotional grief and anguish in wrongful death cases.

So now we wait and remain hopeful that Governor Hochul will come down on the right side of justice and equity for all New Yorkers. We need laws that promote accountability and equity in wrongful death cases, and ultimately put people, not lobbyists and special interest groups, first.

David B. Lever is a member of Lever & Ecker, PLLC, a boutique plaintiff’s personal injury firm located in White Plains, New York.

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