Today Is Deadline for New York Gov. Hochul to Decide on Bill to Expand Wrongful Death Damages

By | January 30, 2023

Today is the deadline for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to decide whether to sign legislation that will expand the types of damages that could be won in wrongful death cases.

The bill, known as the Grieving Families Act, seeks to update the state’s 175 year-old wrongful death statute. It would become law immediately if Hochul signs it. If she vetoes it or does nothing, the measure does not become law.

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Businesses including insurers oppose the measure, warning the change could mean higher liability insurance costs in the state.

Meanwhile, advocates for victims claim the change would bring the state in line with other states’ damages statutes and is long overdue.

While current New York law basically limits recovery in wrongful death cases to a decedent’s close family members and for pecuniary or tangible monetary damages only, the legislation (A.6770/S.74A) would mark a substantial departure by allowing recovery for emotional damages including grief or anguish and loss of affection and companionship.

The bill would also enlarge the list of family members who could sue to include spouses and domestic partners, as well as children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, parents, grandparents, stepparents and siblings. A jury could define who is a close family member.

The bill would also extend the current two-year statute of limitations to three years and six months.

A leading proponent, the New York Public Interest Research Group, argues that the new law will bring New York in line with approximately 47 other states that already allow their courts to consider the value of lost relationships and 20 states that already recognize claims for the grief and mental anguish experienced resulting from a wrongful death. Alabama and New York are the only states that allow neither, NYPIRG said.

NYPIRG has represented families who lost loved ones in the recent Bronx fire, the Schoharie limousine crash, and other tragedies.

“Each year, New Yorkers are killed by drunk drivers, medical negligence, defective products, dangerous roadway conditions, and countless other acts and omissions. New York’s 1847 Wrongful Death Law fails to deliver justice by not placing value on the loss of the love, affection, companionship and comfort that New Yorkers are deprived of when a loved one’s life is wrongfully taken,” the public interest group stated.

“No amount of money can replace a father, a daughter, a sibling, a domestic partner, or a spouse — but financial compensation for family members grieving a loved one’s wrongful death is a necessary accountability tool,” commented Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who sponsored the legislation along with Assembly Member Helene Weinstein.

Economic Burden

But those new settlements could translate into a burden on the state’s economy, according to chambers of commerce and more than 30 industry groups representing insurance, building, manufacturing, health and other sectors that have urged Hochul to veto the bill. The American Property Casualty Insurance Association and the Big I NY independent insurance agents association are among the opponents.

“In a time of stubborn inflation and economic uncertainty, New York families, local governments, and our already strained healthcare system can’t afford yet another cost hike,” said Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, in a statement today urging a veto. “If this fundamentally flawed bill becomes law, it will be even more expensive to live, do business, and provide vital services in the Empire State.”

An analysis from actuarial firm Milliman for the New York Civil Justice Institute found that if the bill is enacted, annual property/casualty insurance premiums – including personal auto and general liability for small businesses – could increase by more than $2 billion or 11%. For medical professional liability insurance, costs are projected to balloon by as much as 45%. Self-insured firms could see liability costs rise $1.7 billion or more than 15% a year, according to Milliman.

“This bill would have a disastrous impact on businesses in the state, endangering our economic recovery in these uncertain times. This bill would radically expand the kinds of damages recoverable in wrongful death actions, driving up liability insurance premiums for public and private entities across the state,” the state’s business lobbies said in a letter to Hochul after the legislation passed both houses in June.

The opponents claim that liability insurance premiums are already higher in New York than almost anywhere else in the country and that the legislation would make it harder to attract new companies and would lead to price increases, pay cuts, and even layoffs.

Hochul has not signaled whether she will sign the measure. Her office did not respond to a recent Insurance Journal request for an update on her thinking or whether she will sign it, veto it, or possibly seek amendments.

Some families pushing for Hochul to approve it told the Times Union they are worried that her inaction is not a good sign for their side.

In 2020, Hochul vetoed a litigation bill citing “significant negative impact” on hospitals and state government and local governments, which she said were already under great strain due to COVID-19.

Photo: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul

Topics New York

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