Hochul Vetoes ‘Wrongful Death’ Bill, Heightening Tension With Lawmakers

ALBANY, N.Y. — Two weeks ago, Democrats in the New York State Senate dealt Gov. Kathy Hochul a stunning loss by rejecting her nominee for the state’s chief judge position, deeming her choice out of step with the state’s liberal values.

On Monday night, it was Ms. Hochul’s turn to wield her power over the Legislature, vetoing a bill meant to overhaul the state’s “wrongful death” law.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature wanted to allow damages to be sought for “emotional loss” in addition to potential lost income; the bill would have also extended the statute of limitations for such lawsuits and applied to all cases pending at the time it became law.

In her veto message issued late Monday, Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat, called the bill overbroad and laden with the potential to hike insurance premiums, and gently upbraided lawmakers for not declining to take “a purposeful step forward” to fix the legislation.

While her statement made no reference to the nomination of Justice Hector D. LaSalle, whose bid to become the chief judge of the Court of Appeals was rejected earlier this month with the Senate Judiciary Committee, the governor’s actions seemed to carry an unmistakable subtext.

“I think it’s more evidence of a tension” between the Legislature and Ms. Hochul, said Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which had supported the bill. “I mean, the veto message could have been written differently. But it wasn’t.”

Mr. Horner also noted that while the bill may have passed quickly in June at the end of the legislative session, versions of the bill have been proffered in Albany for more than a decade.

“My guess is that if she wanted to work something out on that bill, it could have been done,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, the Manhattan state senator who happens to serve as the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said on Tuesday that the governor’s aides had not engaged with lawmakers since Dec. 20, when they offered a set of amendments “that eviscerated our legislation and refused to negotiate further.”

Mr. Hoylman-Sigal also noted that negotiations over already-passed bills were commonplace, with amendments often passed early in the year. “But in this case,” he said, “it was take it or leave it.”

Administration officials contest that assertion, noting that the deadline for signing the bill was extended by a month at the end of December, indicating that discussions were ongoing.

The bill, which passed both chambers in Albany by wide margins, would have overhauled the state’s wrongful-death statute, an antebellum law that dates to 1847.

The bill would have matched similar provisions found in laws in dozens of other states, according to Mr. Hoylman-Sigal. But the bill, known as the Grieving Families Act, had been steadfastly opposed by a raft of interests, including insurance companies and hospital associations, as well as the Defense Association of New York, a group of lawyers who typically represent cities and other public entities, as well as individuals who are sued in tort claims.

Claire Rush, the group’s president, said on Tuesday that she was relieved by the governor’s veto, arguing that the bill was one-sided, and did not “take into account the due-process rights of people that are sued in the state.”

Among other issues, Ms. Rush’s group was concerned about the retroactivity of the bill, and what she called a lack of input from “municipalities, hospitals, insurance companies, as to what the effect would be.”

“This was just sort of bulldozed through the Legislature,” she said.

In an opinion piece in The Daily News, Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, echoed that notion, noting that it had moved through final committee votes and both houses in a single day.

“What was missing,” Ms. Hochul wrote, “was a serious evaluation of the impact of these massive changes on the economy, small businesses, individuals and the state’s complex health care system.”

While Democrats hold supermajorities in both the Senate and the Assembly, and can conceivably override vetoes by Ms. Hochul, Mr. Hoylman-Sigal said that such a move was “time-barred,” since the bill was passed in the previous legislative session.

The debate over the bill also touches on another delicate and politically fraught calculus faced by Ms. Hochul, who has sought to present herself as both a practically minded moderate with an interest in law-and-order, and reliable liberal with a lasting interest in criminal justice reform.

The bill also carried hefty emotional weight, with supporters arguing that the survivors of victims of violence and careless accidents deserved recompense for their pain.

Janet Steenburg, who lost two sons and a daughter-in-law in a 2018 limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y., that killed 20 people, said in a news conference on Monday that she was bewildered by the governor’s opposition to the bill.

“If people have a loss, they have a loss,” she said. “And if you’re at fault, then you should pay.”

Ms. Hochul also recognized the need to change the current law, particularly in regards to the deaths of children, who may not have recognizable earning power — and thus monetary value — under the current law.

“As a parent, I know how precious our children are to us,” the governor wrote in her veto message, “and know how devastating it must be for a family to learn that under state law, the life of their child is less valuable than someone older who earns a salary.”

For their part, Ms. Rush said that her organization would welcome the opportunity to work with the Legislature “to craft a fair law,” while Mr. Hoylman-Sigal said he believed another version of the bill could soon be offered.

He also said that he felt he and the governor “enjoyed a good relationship” despite their recent clashes over policy and judicial preferences.

“The policy isn’t personal,” he said. “And I certainly don’t take it as such.”

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