Kathy Hochul

DC 37 to Hochul: Sign the Grieving Families Act

In a new letter, the state’s largest public sector union is calling on the governor to approve changes to the state’s nearly 180-year-old wrongful death law

Gov. Kathy Hochul addresses the press on Nov. 21, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul addresses the press on Nov. 21, 2023. Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

With just a month left in the year for Gov. Hochul to act, the state’s largest public sector union is calling on her to sign the Grieving Families Act.

In a letter shared exclusively with City & State, District Council 37 is adding its voice to those asking Hochul to sign legislation that would allow families to seek compensation for pain and suffering following the wrongful death of a loved one. DC 37, which endorsed Hochul in both the Democratic primary and the general election last year, is the first major union to publicly support the bill. “Many other states include damages for grief and suffering in wrongful death cases,” the union’s letter reads. “We urge you to lead New York State in following suit.”

Under the state’s current wrongful death law, which is over 150 years old, family members may only sue for loss of income related to a wrongful death. “Too often, this means that families faced with the sudden, wrongful death of a child, a stay-at-home mom or dad, or an elderly family member are denied any compensation at all, since the deceased did not have a meaningful income,” the letter reads. “No other value is place(d) on the loss of this family member by law.”

In January, Hochul vetoed a version of the bill that lawmakers approved last year. (She did not act on the bill before the end of the calendar year, a move which gave her an extra month to consider it before ultimately issuing a veto.) In an accompanying veto memo, Hochul expressed support for the intent of the bill. But she also enumerated several issues she had with the version that passed last year, including an overly broad definition of “surviving close family members” and the fact that the changes to the law would apply to existing cases as well as future cases. “The bill as drafted, while well-intentioned, represents an extraordinary departure from New York's wrongful death jurisprudence and may result in significant unintended consequences,” the governor wrote. 

Hochul also said that the Legislature rejected a pared back compromise that would have allowed parents to seek emotional damages for the death of a child while figuring out the nuances of the broader bill. “I believe we must fully understand the impacts of potential changes to the wrongful death framework on families, small businesses, struggling hospitals, and the different facets of the economy, and I will continue to engage with stakeholders and interested parties to do the hard work necessary to find equitable solutions,” Hochul wrote.

The version of the bill passed this year includes several amendments based on concerns that Hochul raised in her veto memo. Most notably, the current version of the bill more narrowly defines which family members would be eligible to sue and would not apply the changes to current cases. DC 37 highlighted those changes in its letter to Hochul. Business groups in New York opposed the Grieving Families Act, and have continued to do so despite the changes made to the bill this year. Most opponents point to the economic impacts of the bill, such as expected increases to health premiums and financial burdens for small businesses. The governor has raised similar concerns about the fiscal impact of the legislation.