Six years ago on a bright fall Saturday, I was taking a cab on the West Side Highway and witnessed from the corner of my eye a woman affixing dozens of large vinyl posters to lampposts.
What I learned was devastating.
The woman was Bobbi Koval, who had traveled from Rochester to hang the signs. On them was an image of her 22-year-old son, Jack, along with a message in all caps that read “Drive like your kid lives here.”
Earlier that summer, Jack had been struck and killed by a reckless driver in Hell’s Kitchen. He was just out of college and excited about a new job in the city. Bobbi and her husband, Joe, had lost their only child. Her advocacy then helped inspire a successful effort by myself and others to lower the speed limit and implement safety enhancements on the West Side Highway.
While the Kovals were able to take some solace from a safer street where their son died, soon their grief was compounded by New York’s outdated laws. The Kovals had hoped the driver would face justice and be held accountable for what he had done. When no criminal charges were filed, the civil justice system became their only avenue for accountability.
Bobbi and Joe discovered that New York State law unjustly limits the financial penalties in wrongful death cases based on the salary of the person killed. That means that the law considers the life of a high-income earner to be more valuable than a child or retiree. A family’s grief counts for nothing. This outdated law, known as the “wrongful death” law, was put in place in 1847 and reflects a time when most families depended on one, male breadwinner.
Times have changed, and it’s long overdue for this law to change, as well.
New York now has a historic opportunity to rectify this inhumane law with our Grieving Families Act, which would allow grief and anguish to be a factor in seeking accountability for shocking loss. Both houses of the Legislature passed it with overwhelming, bipartisan support in the session’s final days and it soon will be headed to the governor’s desk for her consideration.
Reckless or negligent individuals must be held to account when their mistakes claim an innocent person’s life, like Jack’s. It can mean the difference between them learning their lesson or doing more harm. We shouldn’t be giving bad actors a free pass.
Since Jack was on the cusp of his career and his family didn’t rely on him financially, the financial penalties in this case weren’t enough to hold the driver meaningfully accountable. What’s more, his death brought with it a slew of pressing logistical and financial questions. Bobbi and Joe had to figure out if they could afford to transport Jack’s body back upstate from New York City so they could say goodbye. Thankfully, their community in Rochester was able to pitch in and help to support them.
Another troublesome fact is that people of color and low-income New Yorkers are particularly harmed by the statute. Since the current law bases recoverable compensation on salary, it enshrines our society’s most harmful prejudices into law. Since a person of color is likely to be paid less than a white person for the same work, the person who negligently takes their life will face lower recoverable compensation and therefore less accountability. High-earners like Wall Street bankers are disproportionately white, giving them and their families special status. In effect, the existing statute sends the message that Black lives, Hispanic lives and Asian lives are worth less than white lives.
New York’s laws should reflect our values, but our outdated “wrongful death” law remains a stain on our books. We need the Grieving Families Act to correct decades of injustice and allow families to sue for grief and anguish. Jack’s family – and all New York families – deserve nothing less.
Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan in the state Senate. He is chair of the Judiciary Committee and the prime Senate sponsor of the Grieving Families Act.