Most New Yorkers have heard about the Schoharie Limousine Crash that took 20 lives on Oct. 6, 2018. It was the deadliest roadway disaster in the U.S. in more than a decade. My husband, Brian Hough, and my dad, Jim Schnurr, were bystanders, killed outside the Apple Barrel Country Store & Café when the limousine blew through a stop sign and into the parking lot. I was standing in the parking lot of the café when the accident occurred.
The enormity of a tragedy like the Schoharie crash is hard to fathom. Each of those 20 lives were tied to others — parents, siblings, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and other loved ones. Brian was a beloved assistant professor of geology at SUNY Oswego and loving father to our then eight-year old son. My dad, Jim, was 70 and semi-retired, but active, doing carpentry and renovations on the houses of family members. He used his life experience and even-keeled demeanor to support and advise the family. I lost my husband and my dad and our son lost his father and grandfather on that day.
No one ever wants to find themselves mourning the loss of a loved one, especially when the tragic circumstances were preventable, as in the Schoharie crash. But the unfortunate reality is that unexpected tragedies like this are all too common.
After tragedies, surviving loved ones rely on the legal system to provide accountability and deter future tragedies. In New York, however, the law fails to hold wrongdoers responsible — particularly when low-income men and women, children and the elderly are the victims of such tragedies.
New York’s Wrongful Death law has not changed since enacted in 1847; it only allows families who lose a loved one to recover damages based on the deceased’s financial contributions. Thus, families of those killed due the negligence of others can only receive reasonable financial compensation for the loss of the individual if that individual was a high-income earner. And New York is one of only two states – with Alabama – that fails to recognize claims for emotional loss of a loved one in wrongful death cases.
Under New York’s pre-Civil War law, the loss of my dad is barely recognized since he was semi-retired and wasn’t our family’s breadwinner. And the emotional loss of my husband and dad and my son’s loss of the relationship with his dad and grandfather are considered to have no value under our law.
Now Gov. Kathy Hochul has the chance to update this antiquated, 175-year-old law. The Grieving Families Act (S.74-A/A.6770), sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, passed both the Senate and Assembly with overwhelming, bipartisan support and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.
The bill would modernize New York's wrongful death law to allow families who have suffered immeasurable losses to pursue damages that measure their loss beyond just their loved one’s salary, including the pain and suffering they have experienced firsthand — something that more than 40 states already allow for. The law would also expand the definition of “close family” to ensure more loved ones can achieve justice.
Right now the costs of the loss of an individual due to someone else’s bad actions are borne by families and loved ones. The best response the state could have is to enact safety measures that better protect the public from needless deaths in the first place – but when they do occur, surely the deceased’s loved ones shouldn’t bear the burden.
That is why I, along with a coalition of civic organizations, urge Hochul to sign this much needed update to the state's outdated Wrongful Death law.
Jackie Schnurr is a resident of Moravia.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
This article originally appeared on Ithaca Journal: It's time to reform New York's antiquated wrongful death law