New York is poised to revise its antiquated wrongful death law, which for over 170 years has limited recovery to “pecuniary injuries,” disallowing any recovery for emotional losses experienced by surviving close family members. “Pecuniary injuries” include economic losses, such as lost wages, but does not include emotional damages, such as grief or anguish.
On June 2, 2022 the New York Legislature voted to pass the Grieving Families Act, whose purpose is to “permit the families of wrongful death victims to recover compensation for their emotional anguish.” The Act would amend several provisions in the New York Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”) to broaden the categories of damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit and the class or category of people who can benefit in a wrongful death lawsuit. The Bill has five sections.
The first section would amend section 5-4.1 of the EPTL to extend the “statute of limitations” from two years to three years and six months, expanding the time period within which a wrongful death claim can generally be made. This change would, among other things, allow grieving families more time to process their loss without having to worry about litigation deadlines. It would also give surviving close family members more time to seek appointment of a personal representative who can bring the lawsuit on their behalf.
The second section would amend section 5-4.3 of the EPTL to permit recovery of damages for emotional loss, as opposed to just pecuniary loss, after a wrongful death. As of this writing, that section states that the “[a]mount of recovery” in a wrongful death lawsuit is limited to “fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries resulting from the decedent’s death” but the amended version would provide, among other things, that compensation can also be recovered for “grief or anguish caused by the decedent’s death, and for any disorder caused by such grief or anguish” and “loss of love, society, protection, comfort, companionship, and consortium” resulting from the death.
This change would recognize that family members bring more to the household than a wage. Family members can also contribute in many very real, but often intangible, ways that can be sorely missed.
The third section would amend section 5-4.4 to permit recovery by “close family members.” The current law provides that damages recovered in a wrongful death claim are “exclusively for the benefit of the decedent’s distributes.” A “distributee” means a person “entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent under the statutes governing descent and distribution.” Based on the Estates, Powers & Trusts Law, in some cases surviving close family members, including but not limited to spouses or domestic partners, issue, parents, grandparents, step-parents and siblings, do not stand to benefit in a wrongful death claim even though the person who passed away may have provided them with important love, society, protection, comfort and companionship.
The amendment, if signed into law by the Governor, would change that. Surviving close family members for whose benefit a wrongful death claim could be brought would include, but not be limited to: a “[s]pouse or domestic partner, issue, parents, grandparents, step-parents and siblings.”
The fourth section would amend section 5-4.6, which explains the process for compromising or settling a wrongful death claim, to reflect that surviving close family members—and not just “distributees”—would stand to benefit in a wrongful death action.
Finally, the fifth section makes clear that the act would take effect “immediately and shall apply to all pending actions and actions commenced on or after such date.”
The Grieving Families Act would transform wrongful death practice in New York State. William Mattar, P.C. continues to monitor this important piece of legislation because it could help our clients. If you have questions on how the Grieving Families Act may affect your case, contact us today online or by calling (844) 444-4444.