As news that Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the long-anticipated Grieving Families Act broke, many New Yorkers found themselves confused, angry, and disappointed. Passage of the act would have given hope to many families — parents, siblings, grandchildren, and more — that have tragically lost a loved one too soon.
In the wake of the breaking news, we take a look at what the rejection of this bill means for New Yorkers.
What Is A Wrongful Death?
When a person dies as a result of another party’s negligence, the deceased person’s estate could be entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the State of New York. The law defines wrongful death as one caused by “a wrongful act, neglect or default,” that the deceased person could have pursued a personal injury lawsuit against if they had survived.
Some examples of events that can qualify a “wrongful act, neglect or default” can include, but are not strictly limited to:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Defective products
- Medical malpractice
- Nursing home neglect
- Workplace injuries especially in construction jobs
What Is New York’s Current Wrongful Death Statute?
New York State’s current wrongful death statute was first enacted in 1847 — over 150 years ago. In its current state, survivors of the deceased are limited in who can bring forth a wrongful death lawsuit and the types of recoveries they can be awarded.
Currently, New York requires that a personal representative of the deceased’s person’s estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the accused party. Unlike many other states, New York’s current wrongful death statute does not allow for a family member to bring forth a wrongful death claim unless that family member is also listed as a personal representative on the deceased’s estate.
The personal representative has 2 years from the date of the deceased’s original injuries to file a wrongful death claim against the negligent party. The types of damages that the personal representative can be awarded include:
- Funeral and burial expenses for the deceased
- Healthcare and medical expenses related to the deceased’s final injury or illness
- Any financial support the deceased would have contributed to their family
- The value of support and services the deceased would have contributed to their family
- The value of parental nursing, care or guidance for surviving children
- Surviving parties’ lost inheritance
- Conscious pain and suffering of the deceased prior to their date of death
New York State does not allow surviving family members to collect damages for their grief, mental anguish or loss of companionship as it relates to the death of their loved one.
What Was Included in The Proposed Grieving Families Act Bill?
The proposed Grieving Families Act bill (Senate Bill S74A) was set to modernize New York’s antiquated wrongful death statutes to vastly expand the definition of “family member”. The bill would also amend the compensable damages those family members could receive from the accused in the event of a wrongful death.
Under the proposed bill, the definition of who constitutes a “family member” in the eyes of the law would expand to “close family members” that include, but are not limited to:
- Domestic partners
The Grieving Families Act also acknowledged that the damages caused by losing a loved one is not confined to the amount of financial support that they provided for their families. The bill took into account the emotional and psychological toll that a wrongful death incurs on their surviving family members. The bill, if passed, would have permitted for:
- Emotional loss
- Loss of companionship
- Pain and suffering inflicted on surviving family members
The updated bill would have also extended the statute of limitations on all new wrongful death cases by 1 year and 6 months, bringing the time that a family member could pursue justice against the wrongdoer to 3 and a half years from the date of the deceased’s accident.
Redefining “Family” In The Context of Wrongful Death Cases
The current statute fails to recognize non-traditional family models, as only designated representatives of the deceased’s estate are allowed to file a lawsuit for financial damages.
As an example, an elderly set of siblings with no children and never married rely on each other emotionally. In the event of the untimely death of one sibling due to nursing home neglect, the other sibling would be emotionally crippled at the loss of their sibling and confidant. Under current law, the sibling would have little to no recourse for the financial damages incurred unless they were listed as a representative on their sibling’s estate. The present law also provides no remedy for the emotional distress and trauma that this death has left the surviving sibling with.
Of course, there are many scenarios where a person’s life is devalued under the current statute. These can include:
- The unfortunate passing of a child in a motor vehicle accident, leaving the parent with little to no recourse as the child does not provide any financial support to their family.
- A single parent who succumbs to injuries sustained at their workplace, forcing their children to be able to seek only monetary compensation for the earning potential of their deceased parent.
- A retired grandmother who is the matriarch of the family but suffers fatal injuries due to medical malpractice. The surviving siblings, children and grandchildren are grief stricken but since she did not work, her case does not have as much value under the law as it would if she had survived.
The proposed bill would have modernized the definition of a family in the eyes of the law so that “close family members”— as determined by a jury — would be able to recover for non-punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. Although a lawsuit cannot recover loss of life, the family members would be compensated accordingly for the emotional toll of a wrongful death.
Does The Current Law Disproportionately Benefit Families of “High Earners”?
Unfortunately, the current New York wrongful death statute places the value of a lost life only on the deceased’s earning potential. By placing the value of the deceased only on their income and the financial value they provided to their family, the current law fails to provide fair compensation for families who have lost a family member with “low earning potential”.
The truth is, acts resulting in a wrongful death don’t only occur to those that have economic value in the eyes of the law. In fact, the current statute is grossly unfair in providing the surviving loved ones with adequate compensation in the event of the loss of:
- A child
- An elder who no longer works
- A stay-at-home parent
- A deceased who worked part-time or made minimum wage
Additionally, by failing to recognize the non-financial contributions the deceased has brought to their families and loved ones, the current statute fails to serve justice to underprivileged individuals and communities. In an open letter after the Governor’s shocking veto, the New York Trial Lawyers Association penned, “Governor Hochul has turned her back on the people who deserve the opportunity to seek justice the most. Until it is changed, the wrongful death statute will continue to deliver uneven justice for communities of color, women, children, seniors, people with disabilities and those with low incomes.”
Why A Reform To Wrongful Death Statutes Is So Important in 2023
New York is one of the few remaining states that has not modernized its wrongful death statutes, but wrongful deaths through negligent acts are a not uncommon occurrence in the realm of personal injury law. This piece of legislation has been introduced every year since 1999 in an attempt to bring justice to families who have lost a loved one.
The bill passed the legislature this year with bi-partisan support only to be rejected by Governor Hochul after pushback from insurance, business and trade associations. The veto of this widely supported bill, which has been accepted by over 40 states nationwide, has left New Yorkers wondering if justice will ever be served to those who need to pursue a wrongful death suit.
As it stands, the current statute turns a blind eye to the anguish that families endure following the loss of a loved one. The current statute not only neglects the emotional distress a wrongful death puts on a family but fails to provide low income families with acceptable compensation for their losses.
Cellino Law Stands With New York Wrongful Death Victims and Their Loved Ones
As a personal injury firm with a long-standing history of helping wrongful death victims’ families in New York, we fully support and endorse the passage of a bill to modernize the outdated statute that leaves many in our state with little to no recourse for justice.
We’ve seen first-hand on many occasions how New York’s current law fails to provide grieving loved ones the justice they deserve given the disparity of compensation that is provided for families who suffer similar tragedies solely based on the earning potential of their deceased family member.
The passage of this, or a similar, bill affects all New Yorkers as wrongful death accidents can happen to anyone regardless of gender, race, or financial status. While we certainly hope that no one has to experience a loss due to another party’s gross negligence, we hope to act as an advocate for those who have. Please, consider calling your local representative and the Governor’s office to demand the passage of a wrongful death statute reform bill to ensure that anyone and everyone who suffers the tragic loss of a family member receives justice.