Gay Partner Can’t Sue Hospital for Malpractice, N.Y. Appeals Court Rules

By | October 13, 2005

A New York Appeals Court has ruled that the same sex partner of a man who died after surgery related to injuries suffered in a car accident does not have standing to sue the hospital for malpractice under state law.

The 3-2 decision by the Appellate Division Second in Brooklyn Department overturned a Nassau County Supreme Court ruling.

Plaintiffs Neil Conrad Spicehandler and John Langan had a long time relationship and civil union partnership recognized in 2000 under Vermont law. However the appeals court ruled that New York State does not recognize same-sex partners as spouses for purposes of bringing suit under its wrongful death statute.

The court said that the originators of the state’s wrongful death statute did not consider same-sex partnerships when they passed the law. It suggested that the remedy is for the Legislature to change the law.

“At the time of the drafting of these statutes, the thought that the surviving spouse would be of the same sex as the decedent was simply inconceivable and certainly there was no discriminatory intent to deny the benefits of the statute to a directed class,” wrote Judge Robert A. Lifson.

The plaintiff argued that the statute violated equal protection. To win he had to demonstrate that the denial of the benefits under the statute to same-sex couples “is not merely unwise or unfair but serves no legitimate governmental purpose,” wrote Lifson in finding that the plaintiff failed to meet that burden.

The fact that the two men had their relationship recognized as a civil union in Vermont did not matter. “Although the dissenters equate civil union relationships with traditional heterosexual marriage, we note that neither the State of Vermont nor the parties to the subject relationship have made that jump in logic,” the court said.

Spicehandler was injured by a man who drove into a crowd of 18 people near Madison Square Garden in Feb. 2002. Spicehandler suffered a severe fracture requiring hospitalization at St. Vincent’s Hospital of New York. After two surgeries he died. Langan sought to recover damages for his partner’s wrongful death.

The driver has since pleaded guilty to murder in Spicehandler’s death and was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison last month.

The hospital sought to dismiss the suit on the ground that the plaintiff and the decedent, being of the same sex, were incapable of being married and, therefore, the plaintiff had no standing as a surviving spouse to institute the present action. The Supreme Court denied that motion but now the Appeals Court has granted it on a reversal.

The majority opinion suggested that any change in the meaning of spouse must be addressed by the Legislature. “The circumstances of the present case highlight the reality that there is a substantial segment of the population of this State that is desirous of achieving state recognition and regulation of their relationships on an equal footing with married couples. There is also a substantial segment of the population of this State that wishes to preserve traditional concepts of marriage as a unique institution confined solely to one man and one woman. Whether these two positions are not so hopelessly at variance (to all but the extremists in each camp) to prevent some type of redress is an issue not for the courts but for the Legislature,” the court concluded.

In a dissent, Judge Stephen Fisher wrote that the majority missed the point. “This case is not about marriage. The plaintiff does not claim to have been married to the decedent, and clearly he was not, either under the laws of New York or in the eyes of Vermont,” Fisher said.

Instead, Fisher maintained, the court should have answered whether the law that recognizes spouses but not partners “draws a distinction between similarly-situated persons on the basis of sexual orientation and, if so, whether the distinction bears some rational relationship to any conceivable governmental objective promoted by the statute.”

He concluded that the statute “does classify similarly-situated persons on the basis of sexual orientation without a rational relationship to any conceivable governmental purpose furthered by the statute.”

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