News & Politics

Exclusive: Hochul proposed significant changes to the Grieving Families Act before veto

Sources familiar with the discussions said they considered the governor’s proposal a nonstarter because it would have completely gutted the bill.

Gov. Kathy Hochul offered to sign a watered-down version of the Grieving Families Act.

Gov. Kathy Hochul offered to sign a watered-down version of the Grieving Families Act. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Gov. Kathy Hochul presented lawmakers and advocates of the Grieving Families Act with an 11th hour proposal that would have largely gutted the law, offering a series of chapter amendments as an all-or-nothing pitch, according to three sources familiar with the discussions. The governor ultimately vetoed the measure after the bill’s supporters rejected her counter-proposal.

The Grieving Families Act would have updated the state’s more than 170-year-old wrongful death statute to allow family members to seek damages for grief and anguish caused by a person’s death, not just financial losses. The bill was aimed at expanding wrongful death benefits to families of victims with low incomes.

In her counter-proposal, a copy of which was shared with City & State, Hochul suggested limiting the law only to deaths of New Yorkers 18 and under, completely removing retroactivity for existing lawsuits, lowering the statute of limitations from three years to two (which is the current law), rejecting any expansion of family members eligible for damages under the statute and setting a sunset date of three years after the law took effect. 

In addition, the governor’s chapter amendments would have removed “grief” from the Grieving Families Act, replacing the terms “grief or anguish” in the bill text with “pain and suffering.” The former is common language in other states’ wrongful death statutes, while the latter is commonly used for personal injury cases.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers approved the 30-year-old Grieving Families Act for the first time in 2022, but Hochul vetoed that version in early 2023. She cited several concerns, including what she considered an overly broad definition of close family members eligible for damages, concerns over retroactivity and potential confusion around potentially overlapping categories of damages. She also cited worries about unintended consequences on small businesses and increased insurance premiums. Before issuing her veto, Hochul publicly said she offered lawmakers a compromise to expand the state’s wrongful death law in cases where the victim is a minor to allow parents to seek compensation for their grief, while also exempting medical malpractice claims.

The sources who spoke to City & State said that stakeholders and lawmakers attempted to engage with Hochul to find workable solutions to her concerns so the Legislature could approve a bill she would support. The sponsors of the legislation – state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assembly Member Helene Weinstein – introduced several fairly significant changes to the bill introduced in 2023 meant to address some of what the governor raised in her veto memo. These narrowed the pool of family members eligible for damages, reduced the statute of limitations from three-and-a-half years to three years, removed a provision that would have covered disorders resulting from grief and limited retroactivity only to incidents that occurred on or after July 1, 2018.

But per sources, Hochul did not heed requests to meet and negotiate the bill, despite the efforts by lawmakers to introduce legislation that addressed issues she had raised. The sources said that no meaningful discussions with the governor’s office took place before the bill passed in 2023, and the chapter amendments her office offered were delivered just days before Christmas without a chance to negotiate. According to the sources, Hochul’s office told lawmakers they could either accept her amendments, or she would veto the bill. Two sources characterized Hochul’s proposal as a nonstarter, containing poison pills that lawmakers and advocates simply could not accept. 

Hochul formally vetoed the bill on Dec. 29. In a memo explaining her decision, she wrote that legislators had rejected a compromise, though – unlike when she vetoed the 2022 bill – she did not offer any details about what sort of compromise she had offered lawmakers. She wrote that she “attempted to work in good faith” with lawmakers to amend the measure and described negotiations as “robust,” characterizations that sources familiar with the discussions rejected. Hochul also wrote that she had “publicly laid out clear criteria for appropriate changes,” though she has not spoken publicly about such changes since her veto memo last January and lawmakers directly addressed several of the concerns she voiced at that time.

When asked directly about her proposed amendments on Tuesday, Hochul declined to elaborate. “I’m not going to disclose those negotiations because I suspect they’ll come up again,” Hochul told reporters at an unrelated press conference. But she implied that legislators did not try to engage with her during the legislative session to pass a version of the bill she would support, and she downplayed the changes included when lawmakers introduced the bill in 2023. “Let’s actually have collaboration during the process instead of you pass in this house, you pass this house, and you put it on the governor’s desk without engagement,” Hochul said after noting that the Legislature passed around 500 bills in the final days of the 2023 session. She added she “want(s) to have the conversation again,” but that lawmakers rejected her proposal.

Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for the state Senate majority, said that Hochul’s characterizations about a total lack of engagement were inaccurate, and indicated that at least some discussions took place. “We did collaborate (but) unfortunately there was no consensus,” he said in a statement.