Today, the New York Daily News published an op-ed by Governor Kathy Hochul on the Grieving Families Act ahead of tonight's deadline for action. Text of the op-ed is available below and can be viewed online here.
There has been much discussion about the merits of changing New York's wrongful death statute, first enacted in 1847. The law today allows individuals to recover monetary damages for the loss of a loved one, measured in economic impact, without compensating for the emotional toll.
As a parent, I know how precious our children are to us, and I know how devastating it must be for a family to learn that under New York law the life of their child is less valuable than someone older who earns a salary. I also recognize that the law as it currently stands, valuing lives based on earning potential, reinforces historic patterns of structural inequity and racism. This is one of many areas of unfairness that remain in our legal system, we must never give up on the important work of making needed change.
I have heard the painful stories from many families of children lost in devastating accidents, who simply want justice and to know that the life of their child has value in the eyes of the law. And I agree with them.
The question is how. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill, the Grieving Families Act, that would effectuate a complete overhaul of the wrongful death framework. It would dramatically expand beneficiaries, categories of damages, and the statute of limitations.
Experts have highlighted concerns that the unintended consequences of this far-reaching, expansive legislation would be significant. It is reasonable to think that the legislation as drafted will drive up already-high health insurance premiums, adding significant costs for many sectors of our economy, particularly hospitals that are still recovering from the pandemic and struggling to stay afloat — including public hospitals that serve disadvantaged communities. This is a question that would benefit from careful analysis before, not after, passing sweeping legislation.
This bill passed at the very end of the legislative session; the bill was approved in committee and voted on by both the Assembly and Senate, in full, on the very same day. What was missing was a serious evaluation of the impact of these massive changes on the economy, small businesses, individuals, and the state's complex health care system.
This is an incredibly emotional and complex issue, and one that must be handled with thoughtfulness and balance: our goal must be to deliver justice for grieving families without sending the economy into distress.
I believe that families who have lost loved ones unjustly should be able to receive meaningful compensation, and want to do the hard work necessary to find solutions that strike the right balance. As a first step, I have suggested to the Legislature that we amend the legislation and sign into a law a version that would give parents of children who have tragically died in accidents the opportunity to seek meaningful accountability for their heart-wrenching loss while, for the time being, exempting far more costly medical malpractice claims.
This approach recognizes that expanding the wrongful death framework must be done in a methodical, smart way. It would give us time to look at data and grapple with complex issues, such as our state's unique constitutional prohibition against limits on damages.
Regardless of whether the Legislature agrees we should take some first steps toward expanding access to justice, the impacts of changing the wrongful death law in New York, looking at empirical data and the experiences of other states, should be analyzed. This will help ensure we have the information we are lacking now as we evaluate any more significant expansions to the law.
We must fully understand the impacts of potential changes on small businesses, families, doctors and nurses, struggling hospitals in underserved communities, and the overall economy to ensure that undesired consequences don't overshadow the good we can do for grieving families.
With no agreement to the fair proposal my administration made a month ago, there is a risk that the time will expire for action by midnight tonight. And that would be just one more insult to the grieving families that are looking to us to do the right thing.
I urge the Legislature to join me in taking a meaningful step forward so that parents who are grieving the loss of their children from accidents can finally receive justice they have been denied for the last 176 years.