Governor Hochul Vetos Act Expanding Wrongful Death Statute

January 31, 2023

By William Parra

The Grieving Families Act (the “Act”), which the New York State Legislature passed on the final day of the June 2022 legislative session, was vetoed by Governor Hochul last night, as the Act formally expired. This followed an op-ed she published yesterday supporting the amendment of the wrongful death statute to expand recovery, particularly for the families of deceased children.

The Act expanded the types of damages recoverable in wrongful death suits, where recovery is presently limited to “pecuniary losses” of a decedent’s distributees, which is generally limited to a decedent’s future lost earnings. Although case law allows recovery of pecuniary loss in the form of a decedent’s pre-death conscious pain and suffering and for loss of parental support, guidance, assistance and inheritance, these damages are often difficult to prove. The Act sought to 1) permit a decedent’s survivors (vaguely defined as “close family members”) to recover for their own “emotional anguish” or pain and suffering; 2) extend the applicable statute of limitations from 2 to 3.5 years; and 3) take immediate, retroactive effect in all pending wrongful death suits.

In vetoing the Act, Governor Hochul voiced her support for the proposed expansion of the existing statute, citing the inequity against the families of minors and others in valuing a life based solely on its future earning potential. However, she cited the following concerns with the scope, financial impact and other “significant unintended consequences” of the Act, as drafted:

  • The indefinite expansion of the beneficiary class will pose difficult questions regarding “closeness,” and protracted discovery and increased litigation costs, particularly in pending cases in which new potential claimants will seek to interject themselves; and
  • The increase in already-high health and other insurance costs, particularly on lower-income families, small businesses, and health care workers and hospitals, which are still struggling from pandemic-related financial pressures.

The Governor called for serious evaluation and study of the financial impact of these expansive changes on these groups particularly, and on the New York State economy generally. Most significantly, she agreed with opponents of the Act that have argued that the State’s constitutional prohibition against limits on jury verdicts on damages must be studied and considered. This refers to the fact that although almost every other state allows for some or many of the expanded classes of beneficiaries or types of damage claims the Act sought to add, but each of those states also have laws capping verdicts on such damages, which New York does not.

The Governor’s veto indicates that the drive to significantly expand the scope of the wrongful death statute is only temporarily defeated, that she is sympathetic and in favor of its expansion, but that she will only sign a bill that considers the overall impact to the general economy.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Howard Klar or William Parra.