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Another Voice: The Grieving Families Act rights historic injustice in wrongful death cases

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Under New York’s current Wrongful Death law, a life lost due to a reckless or preventable act is valued by an individual's “pecuniary” loss, which equates the value of a person’s life with their paycheck. This law, dating from 1847, results in the devaluation of children, seniors and individuals who do not produce a substantial income. The current law also bars close non-nuclear family members, such as domestic partners, step-family, aunts and uncles and grandparents, from seeking damages for the loss of a loved one. 

The victims of the mass shooting at Tops would fall into many of these categories. They were predominantly people of color, working-class and over the age of 50. Some were also seniors, and yet the moment that racist gunman decided to slaughter them, many of their lives were effectively worthless under New York's antiquated wrongful death law. 

Buffalo is the fifth most segregated city in America – it’s also one of the poorest cities in the country. A 2021 study, conducted by the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, indicated that 35% of the city’s Black residents – 85% of which live in the city’s East Side – live below the poverty line. The study also stated that the median household income of Black residents is $28,000, while the white median household income is $50,249. Based on these earnings, if a white and a black resident of Buffalo of the same age were wrongfully killed in the same incident, on average, the life of the white resident would be valued in court at nearly twice as much as that of the black resident. 

Not only does the current law put those who come from Buffalo’s East Side, and many other communities across the state, at a significant disadvantage, but it fails to account for nontraditional family structures, preventing many New Yorkers from seeking justice. Under current law, only certain family members can bring suit. A child can sue for the loss of a parent, but not a stepparent, no matter how close of a relationship they have. A grandchild being raised by their grandparent is almost always deemed by the law not to be close enough to be a loss if either of them are killed. Unmarried partners and other family members that may have been part of a household together for decades, are deemed by the law not to have a close enough relationship to constitute a loss.

Thankfully, the Grieving Families Act, a long overdue amendment to New York’s Wrongful Death law, was passed in both the State Senate and Assembly at the end of this year’s legislative session. It would allow for the consideration of emotional loss when valuing the lives of loved ones who have died due to a reckless or negligent act, and it would allow recovery by close family members. 

Forty-seven states already take the true value of human life into consideration by allowing recovery for non-economic loss. And as evidenced by the overwhelming bipartisan support in the State Legislature for the Grieving Families Act, it simply does not make sense for New York to hold off any longer on turning this legislation into law.

The Grieving Families Act is currently awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature and once signed it will become one of the most significant laws in New York State history. It will restore justice for families whose losses have been previously overlooked and provide much needed closure to countless people. That is why we look forward to Hochul signing bill A.6770/S.74-a and bringing New York’s wrongful death law into the 21st century.

Crystal Peoples-Stokes is the State Assembly majority leader. Helene E. Weinstein is chair of the State Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

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