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New York lawmakers send amended wrongful death bill to Hochul

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(The Center Square) — New York lawmakers have again approved a bill to expand the state’s wrongful death liability law to allow families to sue for damages, but critics say the latest plan does little to assuage concerns raised by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has twice rejected the plan.

The Grieving Families Act, which was approved by the state Senate on Wednesday by a 51-8 vote, calls for updating the state’s nearly 180-year-old law governing wrongful deaths to allow families to seek emotional damages. Under the current law, they can only sue for financial damages, like lost wages.

Supporters of the legislation argue that the antiquated law prevents grief-stricken families from recovering damages for their emotional suffering, including the survivors of 10 victims killed last year in a mass shooting at the Buffalo supermarket.

One of the bill’s primary backers, state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, D-Manhattan, said New York is out of step with 47 other states’ wrongful death laws, which he says has “denied countless family members the proper consideration for their loved ones since the current statute considers only economic loss.”

“It’s time to stop denying New Yorkers the proper consideration for the loss of their loved ones and finally sign this bill into law!” Hoylman-Sigal posted on social media.

The measure passed with bipartisan support from Republicans, including state Sen. Anthony Palumbo, R-New Suffolk, a former prosecutor who said the changes would “bring New York State’s wrongful death statute into the modern era, on par with the rest of the nation and in line with our values.”

“It would provide families who have lost a child or loved one the ability to seek damages for their pain and suffering in cases where wrongful death is established,” Palumbo said in a statement.

After Hochul vetoed the measure a second time in January, backers of the plan amended the bill to scale back the list of family members eligible to sue, limiting it to spouses or domestic partners of the deceased.

The bill’s previous version expanded the list to include children, foster children, step-children, step-grandchildren, parents, step-grandparents, siblings and other “close relatives.”

Lawmakers also amended the bill to extend the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits from two to three years. They eliminated a provision that would have required relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to initiate legal claims within 2 1/2 years, which would have blocked them from filing lawsuits.

New York’s current wrongful death law, which has been on the books since 1847, doesn’t allow for non-economic losses in such civil lawsuits. It doesn’t permit recovery for pain and suffering, mental anguish or loss of companionship for surviving family members. It also restricts civil awards to pecuniary or tangible monetary damages.

Hochul had suggested that she would support a watered-down “compromise” version of the bill that exempts medical malpractice claims. But backers of the legislation declined to remove that provision, arguing that it would unfairly limit the types of cases eligible for litigation.

But the proposal has been met with fierce pushback from business groups, who argue that expanding the law would put unfair financial burdens on businesses, hospitals and the insurance industry. They say those added costs would drive up medical insurance costs and liability premiums.

Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, said the amended bill will “do nothing to resolve the concerns of Governor Hochul, or the school districts, public hospitals, transit authorities, cities, towns, and counties who are deeply worried about this legislation’s impact on local government services and the healthcare system.”

“Despite the oceans of data, lawmakers absurdly claim the fiscal impact to state and local governments will be ‘none.’ That’s not possible,” he said in a statement. “If the aim is to pay more people more money, the money has to come from somewhere. This bill should not become law without a comprehensive fiscal analysis.”