BUFFALO, N.Y. — New York's wrongful death statute has not been updated in 175 years but legislation currently on the governor's desk would do just that.
The Grieving Families Act would expand who can bring a lawsuit, the amount of time people have to sue and most notably allow for emotional damages.
"This new statute would allow for recovery for these most important components, for grief or anguish, for loss of companionship, nurture, the type of things that should be valued," attorney Terry Connors said.
Connors represents seven of the families who lost loved ones during the mass shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo earlier this year. He said the current statute discriminates against the young and elderly who often aren't making significant money.
The attorney noted the majority of the Tops victims were elderly, including 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, the mother of his client and former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield.
"People on the defense would say she wasn't anything financially to them, there's no real loss, which is ridiculous because the loss... all you have to do is look on their faces when they talk about their mother. Look and hear what they have to say about how much she meant to them and how much they lost when she was murdered," Connors said.
There is strong opposition to the bill as well including the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, a coalition concerned about the effect of litigation on the state's economy. Executive Director Tom Stebbins said if the governor signs the bill, everyone will pay.
"You will pay more as a patient because your doctors will be paying vastly more as doctors, [and] so will your hospitals," he said. "You will pay more as a taxpayer because our municipalities are frequently the deep pockets that are sued in these cases."
Stebbins said agencies like the Department of Transportation and the trucking industry are often targets of wrongful death lawsuits as well and increased damages, settlements or insurance premiums will fall back on the regular consumers and taxpayers. He said it's a particularly tough time for hospitals already dealing with financial uncertainty due to the pandemic and understaffing.
"This is really going to kick our medical community while they're down which is why we've seen every medical profession, the hospital association, etc. all come out in opposition to this bill," Stebbins said.
Connors believes the financial impact is being overstated by the opposition but says [that] even if there is some, there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis.
"What you don't hear is how does it address the families and the people who lost their loved ones. That incalculable loss is something that needs to be compared to what might be the alleged monetary loss to the insurance company," he said.
The governor said she is gathering information from all different points of view which is why her review of the legislation is taking a while.