On January 30, 2023, at the eleventh hour, Governor Hochul vetoed legislation known as the Grieving Families Act. The defense bar has waited with some degree of anxiety to see if Bill S74A would pass her desk, and when it did not, a collective sigh of relief was heard among many. Despite heavy pressure from the plaintiff bar and others, Governor Hochul expressed concern about the potential negative impact of the bill on the economy as well as healthcare costs.
Senate Bill S74A, also known as the "Grieving Families Act" (“GFA”) was set to significantly expand the availability of compensable damages in wrongful death actions. Currently, compensable damages in these types of actions are limited to pecuniary loss only, such as pre-death medical expenses, funeral expenses and loss of financial support. In addition, plaintiffs would have had the ability to recover for grief, sympathy and loss of consortium, whereas currently they may only recover economic damages. Further, it would have applied retroactively to all currently pending wrongful death cases.
Under the now dead bill, the definition of who constitutes a family member would have been expanded to include “close family members”, including but not limited to, spouses, domestic partners, children, parents, grandparents, stepparents and siblings. This overhaul of the wrongful death statute was opposed by many in the business and legal communities who lobbied hard for the veto.
Ultimately, Governor Hochul vetoed the legislation amid concerns that it would result in skyrocketing health insurance premiums and would punish many sectors of the business and insurance communities with significant additional costs. The legislation would have had devastating effects on the defense of pending suits and opened the floodgates to distant relatives filing lawsuits for damages in wrongful death actions and created causes of actions where none existed before the proposed bill. Given this economic impact, the Governor determined that this was not the prudent solution to an outdated wrongful death statute. She did, however, encourage the legislature to update the current statute without throwing such a big blow to small businesses, insurance companies and individuals impacted by higher healthcare costs. She wrote in an op-ed piece published by the New York Daily News. “We must fully understand the impacts of potential changes on small businesses, families, doctors and nurses, struggling hospitals in underserved communities, and the overall economy to ensure that undesired consequences don’t overshadow the good we can do for grieving families.”
A new version of the bill is expected to be passed in the legislature in 2023, which will include expanded benefits for parents involved in wrongful death suits for the loss of children under the age of 18 among other provisions. For now, there is damage control on the now “dead” bill and the defense bar can breathe a sigh of relief. The attorneys at Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman will keep a watchful eye on the progress of this legislation and provide updates as developments occur.