On Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed the Grieving Families Act, a proposed expansion of New York’s wrongful death statute. Hochul’s veto is a victory for corporate lobbyists and a defeat for the plaintiffs’ bar, locking many grieving family members out of court. But it also creates yet another conflict between the governor and state Democrats, who prioritized this reform and urged the governor to approve it. Why Hochul chose to further poison her office’s relationship with lawmakers in her own party—upon whom she will rely to pass her agenda—is yet another head scratcher from a governor whose very short tenure has been full of them.
Wrongful death suits let survivors collect damages when an individual or corporation causes the death of a family member through negligence or recklessness. But New York’s statute, enacted in 1847, is a relic of an era when many civil justice systems measured a person’s worth on the basis of their earnings alone: The law allows survivors to collect damages primarily for “pecuniary injuries,” meaning lost financial support. This focus on the victim’s monetary worth was rooted in concern for those who lost their family breadwinner (almost always the husband and father). But it diminishes the value of everyone else: Does the life of a child, grandparent, or disabled person have no value because they are not employed?
Today, every state except New York and Alabama has updated its wrongful death policies to reflect the idea that survivors deserve compensation even if they can’t quantify what they’ve lost in dollars and cents. Most states allow family members to collect emotional damages for the grief, anguish, and loss of companionship. These reforms acknowledge that a deceased individual is worth more than a lost paycheck. But they have not yet come to New York. The Grieving Families Act would have changed that, amending state law to let plaintiffs collect emotional damages in wrongful death suits. It also would have let more family members recover damages, including grandparents, step-parents, siblings, children, and unmarried domestic partners. And it would have extended the statute of limitations from two years to three and a half.
Hochul’s move on Monday was the highest profile in a flurry of vetoes, ending the 2022 legislative cycle on a sour and controversial note. The bill enjoys bipartisan support and has been roughly 30 years in the making, with its first version introduced in 1994. It passed the legislature in June; Hochul, until the end, said she needed more time to improve it.
The governor’s approach to negotiating the package was, to put it mildly, vexing. For months, she refused to indicate her position. Then, one day before the January 31 deadline, Hochul took to the op-ed pages of the New York Daily News in an attempt to deliver an ultimatum to the state’s lawmakers. “I have suggested to the Legislature that we amend the legislation,” she wrote, “and sign into a law a version that would give parents of children who have tragically died in accidents the opportunity to seek meaningful accountability for their heart-wrenching loss while, for the time being, exempting far more costly medical malpractice claims.”
To the surprise of no one, that negotiation tactic landed with a thud. State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein issued a blistering statement in response. “Despite the staggering inadequacy of her proposal,” they wrote, “we offered to negotiate to find common ground, only to be turned away by the Governor, who presented her proposal as ‘take it or leave it.’” Hoylman-Sigal, as chairman of the judiciary committee, crossed swords with Hochul earlier this month over her doomed Court of Appeals nominee Hector LaSalle, whose candidacy was shot down by the committee in a 10-9 vote earlier this year. Weinstein, meanwhile, has been in the legislature for forty years, and has rarely been known to make such scathing remarks about fellow Dems.
Hochul’s veto message included more antagonizing language: The Grieving Families Act, she said, “passed without a serious evaluation of the impact of these massive changes on the economy, small businesses, individuals, and the State’s complex health care system.”
The bill enjoyed overwhelming support from her fellow party members. Everyone from state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins to state Attorney General Letitia James had vocally backed it; Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus Chair Assembly Member Michaelle Solages wrote the governor in November urging her to sign it into law.
It’s telling that one of the only constituencies celebrating the governor’s decision was the Partnership for New York City, a pro-business influence group. The insurance industry and hospitals also lobbied against the bill—giving some insight into who has the governor’s ear and who might be advising her.
It’s a troubling tone-setter ahead of the state’s budget negotiations, which begin on Wednesday. The governor enters those deliberations with a very weak hand, and desperately short of goodwill after she threatened to sue the Senate Democratic caucus—her own party!—after they refused to confirm her Court of Appeals nominee.
What comes next may prove decisive for the remaining years of Hochul’s governorship, even at this early stage. She may seek out a detente with members of her own party, and look to ease the tension between the legislature and the executive. She might also resolve to antagonize those Democratic representatives further. “Her office is still getting their sea legs; we’ll learn more about her as we bring more bills to her desk for signature,” Sen. Hoylman-Sigal told me. Other Democratic insiders in Albany were less gracious, saying that Hochul’s op-ed “deliberately misrepresents” the legislation in question, calling her strategy “unnecessarily provocative,” as Rebecca C. Lewis reported in City and State New York.
These issues won’t go away quietly. Already, the Grieving Families Act has been reintroduced. And Hochul has already produced plenty of evidence that the newly-empowered legislature is undeterred by her tactics. Rarely has a veto been overridden in Albany, but state Democrats do enjoy the ability, with super-majorities in both chambers, to override the governor on these issues if they find the governor to be a continued impediment to the Democratic agenda. For now, the biggest losers in that fight are New York’s families with victims of wrongful deaths.