On December 29, 2023, New York Governor Kathy Hochul votoed the Grieving Families Act.

The bill passed the Assembly and Senate with bipartisan support last year, but was vetoed by the Governor in January 2023. A narrower bill was then introduced and again passed both chambers. However, for the second time, Gov. Hochul vetoed the legislation that would amend the state’s wrongful death laws established in 1847 to allow victims’ families to seek damages for pain and suffering. The bill also redefined the types of damages that might be recovered, expanded the class of individuals who may recover such damages, and extended the statute of limitations.

In Gov. Hochul’s veto memo, she wrote that the Legislature “once again passed a bill that does not create the requisite balance and again introduces the potential for significant unintended consequences.” She cited “legitimate concerns” raised to her that the legislation would result in increased insurance premiums for most people and “risk the financial well-being” of health care facilities in the state. Gov. Hochul further wrote “I proposed compromises that would have supported grieving families and allowed them to recover additional meaningful compensation, while at the same time providing certainty for consumers and businesses.” Gov. Hochul said she remained committed to finding a solution to the issue of updating the state’s 177-year-old wrongful death statute.

Original Client Advisory

Since 1847, the wrongful death statute in New York has limited damages and compensation for a person’s wrongful death. Specifically, it is codified in the Estates, Powers & Trust Law (EPTL) at 5-4.3 and 5-4.4(a) that only a distributee of a decedent who suffers pecuniary loss be entitled to recovery, essentially limiting compensation to those persons the decedent financially supported at the time of his or her death.

In the most basic terms, currently, in order to recover for a claim of wrongful death, one must have been financially supported in some manner by the decedent.  If an individual who did not provide any financial support to any immediate family member, such as an unemployed parent, a child or disabled person, or retires, died as a result of the negligence of another person, their family would not be able to sue for compensation in civil court because they have no pecuniary loss.

What You Need to Know

New York may very soon change this. A new bill entitled “The Grieving Families Act”, as amended, was introduced to the Legislature and was passed in the Senate and Assembly.  The bill provides a path for compensation to be awarded for pain, grief, and anguish due to a person’s wrongful death, separate and apart from damages that can be recovered for pecuniary loss.

Additionally, the bill looks to replace the definition of “distributees” in the EPTL, essentially reexamining the 1847 definition of family. The bill would extend the definition of family to non-married couples, domestic partners, step-parents, step-children, and grandparents. The bill leaves it to the finder of fact (jury, judge, or official investigator) to decide which persons are close family members to the decedent, so as to be within the definition of “distributee”.

Lastly, the bill would amend the statute of limitations to bring a wrongful death claim from two years to three and one-half years and could be retroactive to those wrongful death cases currently in suit.

If enacted, the bill will amend the Estates, Powers & Trusts Law to permit families of wrongful death victims to recover compensation for their emotional anguish. With over 40 other states enacting similar legislation, it is hard to imagine that New York will not follow suit. The bill has been delivered and currently awaits Governor Hochul’s signature into law or veto.

If the bill is signed by Governor Hochul, it will take effect immediately.

Stay tuned to Monaco Cooper Lamme & Carr, PLLC for updates.

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This Client Advisory is provided as a courtesy to the clients of Monaco Cooper Lamme & Carr, PLLC. It provides general information and is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between MCLC and the reader. Should the reader desire additional information about the content of this Advisory and/or its application, please contact us at MCLC at (518) 855-3535 or info@mclclaw.com.