State Senator Cordell Cleare

The unimaginable pain felt by a family who buries a loved one lost to negligence or police violence is far too common in our community, but that is only the start of the pain felt by many of these families. They will quickly find out that a New York law enacted before the Civil War says that the lives of Black people are worth less than the lives of white people.

You read that right: New York has a law on the books, passed at a time when there were millions of enslaved people in this country, that says white lives are more valuable than Black lives. How is that possible? Because New York’s wrongful death law, passed in 1847, values the lives of those killed only in terms of how much money they make. As a result, because a significant percentage of Black Americans are underpaid while they are alive, their lives are worth less after they are killed. 

The current law is immoral.

That is why 203 of my colleagues and I, from both parties and from every corner of the state, voted to reform the wrongful death law earlier this year. The legislation we passed, known as the Grieving Families Act, which awaits action by Governor Kathy Hochul, will allow the courts to consider grief—not just paychecks. In addition, it will ensure that non-traditional family members are not locked out of the courts.

You are probably thinking, “Surely, nobody could possibly oppose legislation to correct such an obvious injustice.” Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The usual insurance companies and special interests are complaining about costs increasing. However, we know what that really means. They are upset that they might have to pay out the same amount of money for the life of a Black child as they do for the life of a white child.

But it’s not just the insurers. A group known as the NYS Conference of Mayors (NYCOM), which represents cities and villages in Albany, also wants the governor to water down or even veto the bill. Why would local governments want to stop reforms of the wrongful death laws? Because police officers work for cities and villages, and they clearly think that making it more expensive for cops to kill unarmed Black people is a bad idea. 

The opposition of insurers and local officials is as divorced from reality as it is immoral.

If municipalities want to limit their liabilities, the obvious solution is to kill fewer innocent people rather than to shortchange the survivors of their victims. 

Moreover, the solution for Governor Hochul is just as obvious—sign the Grieving Families Act as it was passed by the legislature. With one stroke of her pen, she can, as the scripture says, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness in an ever-flowing stream.

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  1. This article is misleading in that there is nothing in the Estates Powers and Trusts Law which makes any distinction based upon race. Secondly, loss of financial support to a decedents children is only one of the categories of damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death lawssuit. Also recoverable are medical and funeral expenses, loss of support and assistance and, on behalf of her minor child, loss of parental care and guidance. (See, Gonzalez v. New York City Hous. Auth., supra, at 668, 569 N.Y.S.2d 915, 572 N.E.2d 598; Plotkin v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 221 A.D.2d 425, 426, 633 N.Y.S.2d 585, lv. dismissed 88 N.Y.2d 917, 646 N.Y.S.2d 983, 670 N.E.2d 224). It is the jury alone which decides what amount to award for loss of support and assistance and, on behalf of her minor child, loss of parental care.

    1. Holy shit Charlie. Tell us about the times you’ve had to tell the parents of a child who fell to his death from a NYCHA apartment window for lack of mandated window guard that their child’s pecuniary value (in and of itself a disgusting phrase to use in this context) is nominal. This is because the New York’s Wrongful Death law is a museum quality piece of legislation that should be relegated to the wing of the Law Museum along side the ‘Ha, women voting’ and ‘Anti Miscegenation’s Good/Eugenics” exhibits.

  2. Who wrote this for Cordelle Cleare? “A group known”? This is novice speak. Where was Cleare when she was the Chief of Staff to the no-show Perkins on this topic? Cleare would better serve her constituents if she addressed all the corrupt houses of worship in her district. Why the silence over the mismanagement at Abyssian Church and HCCI?

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with this article, despite the criticisms from narrow minded people. But it’s not just people of color who are discriminated against by this antiquated law. It’s anyone who doesn’t have a large income or an established means of support. Lots of well-intentioned people who perform numerous acts of kindness and charitable volunteerism inside their communities, and for the churches never receive a cent of remuneration, yet when they die, or are taken away from us by a wrongful death commission, there is very little compensation to the survivors, or to the community at large, to which these wonderful people have meant so much. Please continue your fight for Governor Hochul to sign the grieving families act, and continue your efforts in this regard.

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