Hochul vetoes Grieving Families Act, inflaming tensions with lawmakers

The governor said she attempted to compromise, but lawmakers said she refused to negotiate.

Despite broad bipartisan support, Hochul vetoed legislation that would have updated that state’s 175-year-old wrongful death laws.

Despite broad bipartisan support, Hochul vetoed legislation that would have updated that state’s 175-year-old wrongful death laws. Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul officially wrapped up the legislative business of 2022 with a veto that has left some political observers scratching their heads. Despite broad bipartisan support, decades of legislative history and lobbying from families of victims of high-profile tragedies, Hochul vetoed legislation that would have updated the state’s 175-year-old wrongful death laws.

New York’s laws relating to wrongful death claims have remained stagnant since before the Civil War. It’s why victims' advocates have been pushing for the Grieving Families Act for the past three decades. First introduced in 1994, the bill would permit families to receive financial compensation for emotional loss in instances of wrongful deaths, rather than simply recovering monetary losses related to the death. The bill aims to make financial relief available to families of all economic situations. It made it to the desk of the governor for the first time last year after both chambers approved it with minimal opposition.

But come the end of the year, Hochul had yet to act on the bill, with the legislation only hitting her desk at the end of December. The new year rolled around and she still offered no public indication on what she would do, with an end-of-January deadline to sign it into law before it automatically died. 

But just a day before that deadline to sign it – as well as roughly a day before her executive budget presentation – Hochul decided to veto the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who led the committee that tanked her chief judge nominee, and Assembly Member Helene Weinstein, who chairs her chamber’s Ways and Means Committee. In a veto message, Hochul wrote that the bill “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.” She added that the Legislature “declined to join me” in supporting a counterproposal she presented that would have allowed parents to seek damages in the wrongful deaths of their children under 18.

With such broad support and a long history in the Legislature that saw the proposal debated and tweaked over the years, some political observers questioned Hochul’s political calculus. “Particularly coming on the heels of the fight over the (Justice Hector) LaSalle nomination, the way the governor framed the opposition to the bill just threw gasoline on the fire,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, a good government group that has pushed for the Grieving Families Act for decades. “To argue that because the bill passed on the last day of session that somehow the Legislature didn’t do their homework seems unnecessarily provocative.” Another Albany insider, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the fight over the legislation, also noted the proximity to her budget presentation. “It’s an interesting choice to veto two of Helene Weinstein’s bills the day before you release the budget,” the insider said in a text to City & State, referencing the other piece of legislation the governor shot down on Monday. The insider added that an op-ed Hochul put out Monday morning “deliberately misrepresents” what happened between the bill’s passage and the ultimate veto.

In the op-ed, published in the Daily News, effectively previewed her veto message. In it, she said that the Legislature wouldn’t agree to a compromise in the form of a “fair proposal (her) administration made a month ago.” The specifics of that proposal were not made public, but both bill sponsors said that it would fall well short of what the Grieving Families Act would have done. “The Governor now says she put forward a ‘fair proposal’ over a month ago, but she doesn’t explain that her counterproposal to the Grieving Families Act only addresses the wrongful deaths of persons under 18 years, and conspicuously exempts deaths that ‘involve or give rise to any actual or potential claim for medical malpractice of any kind,’” Weinstein and Hoylman-Sigal said in a joint response to the op-ed. They also noted that Hochul’s counterproposal would have excluded the families of victims of the Tops grocery store mass shooting last year and the 2018 Schoharie limousine crash, both of whom have lobbied the governor to support the legislation. “Despite the staggering inadequacy of her proposal, 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,’” Weinstein and Hoylman-Sigal wrote.

Horner said he “didn’t hear a peep” about negotiations to find a compromise to what passed. The governor’s office had seven months to review the legislation. “If I were a lawmaker, I’d be insulted,” he added of Hochul’s ultimate justification.

When asked about Hochul’s decision to reject the legislation, as well as her assertion that the Legislature dropped the ball, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said her members did their jobs. “The circumstances around why people were pushing for it really have not changed,” Stewart-Cousins told reporters on Tuesday. “But we’ve been talking about it, we’ve had the conversations, people understand why it’s important, that it has broad bipartisan support, and so people get it.”

Leading up to the governor’s veto, supporters strongly urged Hochul to sign the legislation. Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus Chair Assembly Member Michaelle Solages wrote to the governor in November appealing to Hochul to give it her thumbs up. “Today our society might recognize that a family member is more than a paycheck, but New York law does not," Solages at the time. "And while New York led the way in 1847, we are an outlier now since just two other states, Alabama, and Delaware, deny survivors the ability to be compensated for grief and other noneconomic losses." More recently, state Attorney General Letitia James added her voice to the chorus of support, telling the Times Union that “wrongful death laws in New York are antiquated, regressive, and must be changed.”

On the opposite side, the insurance industry and hospitals, which both have significant money and influence, lobbied against the bill. They argued that the changes the bill would impose would lead to spikes in medical insurance as well as liability premiums.