Let me paint you a picture of grief.
It depicts a father sitting in your office telling you the story of the last night he saw his daughter. She was 3 years old, sitting in her car seat in the back of his car, when a tractor-trailer ran through a stop sign and collided with the side of his vehicle. The windows shattered; the car rolled; the roof collapsed against a tree. Once he regained his senses, he looked to his daughter. She was still in her car seat, but she wasn’t breathing. He saw the EMTs take his little girl rush her in an ambulance to the nearest hospital. He watched the doctors try to bring her back. He listened when they pronounced her dead a few hours later. And then he had to go on living – without her.
Now, let me paint you a picture of anguish.
It’s that father being told that – under New York law – none of that matters.
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Right now, New York law prohibits compensation for a family’s grief and anguish when a loved one is killed. The law allows recovery for only the “economic harm” to the next of kin. This generally means that a person’s life is valued according to what they earn. Only New York and Alabama have such a limitation.
In June, the New York Legislature passed the Grieving Families Act. The legislation fundamentally changes the scope of damages in wrongful death actions. For the first time, surviving families will be able to seek compensation for grief and anguish.
Cases such as the one above are known all too well by negligence lawyers. When a young child is killed, we have to tell the parents that damages in any case will be limited, severely. The grief and anguish experienced by the surviving parents is irrelevant. In fact, in most cases, families are prohibited from mentioning their grief in the presence of a jury because it would be too prejudicial to the defendant. The parents are told that the case will be difficult. It will be speculative. And it may not be worth it. Worse yet, if their child had lived – if, despite serious injury, they could still hold their daughter – their case would actually be much stronger. Where is the justice in that?
Despite the law passing three months ago, Gov. Hochul has not yet signed the bill. There is an effort to convince the governor that the law, as written, should not be signed and potentially vetoed outright. The Grieving Families Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support to provide justice for survivors and to bring New York in line with the rest of the nation. The law should be signed without alteration, so that these families can finally seek the justice they deserve.
Carey C. Beyer, Esq. is an attorney at the Law Office of Francis M. Letro.