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  • Writer's pictureLeitner Varughese Warywoda

The Grieving Families Act: A Step Into this Century for Wrongful Death Law in New York?

New York's wrongful death law is a relic from the past, a vestige of a bygone era in which justice was meted out without regard for the needs and rights of the victim's family. This law, enacted in 1847, is woefully out of date and fails to provide adequate compensation to those who suffer the loss of a loved one due to another's negligence or misconduct.

Compounding this injustice is the fact that the law only allows the executor or administrator of the deceased's estate to file a wrongful death claim. This means that a victim's spouse, children, and other relatives are excluded from seeking justice and recompense for their loss. This narrow restriction effectively deprives families of their rightful place at the table of justice.

Furthermore, the law fails to provide for the award of punitive damages in wrongful death cases. Punitive damages send a clear message to wrongdoers that their actions will not be tolerated and serves as a warning to others to refrain from similar misconduct. Without this powerful deterrent, bad actors are free to repeat their actions, and victims' families are left without true recourse.

Even more alarming, the law fails to address the increasingly prevalent problem of digital assets left behind after a person's death. In today's world, many people have online accounts and social media profiles that must be handled with care and sensitivity. But the current law does not speak to the handling of these assets, leaving families uncertain and confused in their mourning and loss.

To add to the tragedy, the law only allows for the award of limited damages, including compensation for medical expenses, funeral costs, and the victim's pain and suffering. This meager compensation fails to account for the loss of future earnings or the intangible, yet real, costs of lost companionship and support, leaving families struggling to cope with the financial and emotional aftermath of their loss.

In short, New York's antiquated wrongful death law is a travesty of justice that must be rectified. Its narrow focus, failure to provide for punitive damages, lack of guidance on digital assets, and bare-bones compensation scheme are all serious flaws that threaten the well-being and dignity of victims' families. It's high time for lawmakers to take action and bring New York's wrongful death law into the modern era.

The Grieving Families Act has been a hotly debated bill in New York for years, aiming to reform and modernize the state's wrongful death statute. The bill has undergone revisions in response to concerns, and is now being slated for legislative review after a January veto of a prior version by Governor Kathy Hochul. The revised bill intends to expand who can file claims beyond traditional family members to include domestic partners, foster children, stepchildren, grandparents, siblings, and others standing in loco parentis to the decedent.

However, the retroactivity component allowing for any cause of action accruing on or after July 1, 2018, remains a concern for some legal observers. The retroactivity provision could mean that defendants are accountable for damages that weren't previously actionable, causing opposition from insurers and industry associations.

Two attorneys who worked closely with lawmakers in crafting the new proposal emphasized that the idea behind the Grieving Families Act is to allow extended family members to seek justice and compensation for a loved one's wrongful death, particularly in the wake of two horrific tragedies: the October 2018 Schoharie limousine crash that killed 20 people and the racially-motivated mass shooting that killed 10 people at Tops supermarket in Buffalo

Despite this opposition, endorsers of the bill argue that outdated limits on wrongful death lawsuits have prevented families from receiving meaningful compensation, and that the Grieving Families Act would provide long overdue justice. The bill has bipartisan support and was overwhelmingly passed by both the Senate and Assembly last year.

Ultimately, the Grieving Families Act aims to ensure that families whose loved ones died due to negligence, malpractice, or intentional torts can seek justice and receive compensation, and that those responsible cannot avoid full accountability. While the retroactivity provision remains a point of contention, the revised bill will hopefully lead to positive advancements in wrongful death law in New York. Despite opposition from insurers and industry associations, endorsers of the bill argue that it seeks to provide long overdue justice for families who have lost loves ones.

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