Don’t delay justice for N.Y. families: Sign the Grieving Families Act

(As Published in the New York Daily News on 11/15/23)

In 1994, I first introduced what has become known as the Grieving Families Act, because I strongly believed that New York’s 1847 wrongful death law’s value of a human life was grossly unfair to marginalized groups, such as seniors, children, and homemakers, among others. My bill passed both chambers for the second year in a row on June 5 of this year.

When the bill first passed in 2022, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin, I felt that justice had finally been served. Regrettably, Gov. Hochul did not sign the bill, citing a number of concerns and expressing a need for more time to study the issue. Well, after listening carefully to the governor’s concerns, and working with my Senate prime sponsor, Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, we analyzed the bill further and have now produced a new and improved bill which we hope the governor will see fit to sign into law, correcting this centuries-old inequity.

I think that all reasonable persons can agree that the life of a person should not be the sum total of their earning capacity in their lifetime. No one would dare say that a child’s life is worth less because they do not earn a salary, or that a parent who selflessly dedicates themselves to supporting their family is worth less merely because they don’t receive a paycheck. Moreover, it would be unjust to classify individuals who have retired or who have disabilities that prevent them from participating in the workforce as less than solely due to their lack of income. Yet this is what the existing — antiquated — law does.

For example, let’s look at two members of the same family, a brother and a sister, and assume both died in a horrible car crash. Both were much loved, and provided guidance, affection and love to their loved ones. One had a six figure income, the other was a homemaker, raising children. In an action to recover for the wrongful death of each such person, the court could consider the income of the wage earner in setting damages, but in the case of the homemaker, the court could not consider the guidance and love which was ripped from the family by the wrongdoer.

How could this be so under existing law? But it is, and has been so since 1847. There is simply no need for New York to rely on a pre-Civil War-era law — which was written well before Abraham Lincoln was president — when determining the value of a life.

Our ancient wrongful death law primarily compensated widows who couldn’t match their husbands’ earnings, after they tragically died due to hazardous work conditions. I’d venture to say that such a model of societal dynamics transformed slightly over the past 176 years. Women now play far more active roles in the workforce, and the concept of family has evolved beyond the nuclear unit; grandparents, aunts, uncles, unmarried partners and siblings are often involved and vital in the raising of children and sustaining a family.

Then there is the outdated definition of “family”, which now includes single-parent, LGBTQ, and multigenerational households.

Recognizing the changing nature of the workforce and the family structure is essential in ensuring that the law remains just and fair for all individuals and families, regardless of their background or circumstances, in the state.

My bill, the Grieving Families Act, is a common-sense amendment which rights these terrible wrongs, and establishes a value on the love, the loss, and the pain a family experiences when a loved one’s death is caused by another. The state would no longer equate the value of a person’s life to the size of their paycheck, and will expand the law’s current definition of family.

Some insurers and others have said to the governor that my bill would cost those responsible for the death of others too much money. I strongly disagree, and can point to the experience of numerous states where this did not happen (for example, Illinois).

And simple justice for the grieving families of those New Yorkers who have perished due to the fault of others cries out. I believe the 2023 version of the bill addresses the governor’s questions and concerns without compromising the overall goal and intention of the Grieving Families Act.

It is now my hope that with the governor’s strong leadership and advocacy for children and seniors, we can finally enact the Grieving Families Act into law. We owe it to the families who have been bravely fighting for this legislation and to all New Yorkers who have lost loved ones through the fault of others. Weinstein is a New York State Assembly member from Brooklyn. © 2023 New York Daily News