Culhane: Pawlenty throws gays under the bus
OK, maybe it’s just because I’ve taught Torts for so long, but an apparently minor development out of Minnesota really has me irked.
First, consider these two stories:
(1) A California woman is mauled to death by vicious dogs, under circumstances so horrific that the owner is convicted of second-degree murder. Her surviving same-sex partner sues under the state’s wrongful death law. Under a strict reading of the statute, she would lose because she doesn’t have “standing” to sue – unlike the deceased woman’s mother, who does have such standing, even though her actual financial and emotional losses are much less. Yet the court allows the claim to proceed anyway, and she collects a large settlement.
(2) A New York couple enters into a civil union in Vermont. Later, one of the men dies because of alleged medical malpractice. Instead of contesting the merits of the suit, the hospital moves to dismiss the claim because the surviving “spouse” isn’t a spouse at all – the civil union doesn’t count. A trial judge allows the case to proceed, but the appellate court holds that the case should have been dismissed.
Since those cases were decided, the laws in both New York and California have been changed to allow “registered” same-sex couples to bring their claims – not necessarily to recover, simply to have the right to try to establish their losses.
These developments had no effect on Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who has just vetoed a bill that would have given surviving members of same-sex couples the right to make decisions about the remains of their partners and the right to sue in wrongful death for negligent acts that resulted in their partners’ demise.
When Pawlenty gave as the reason for his veto that the law was unnecessary because same-sex couples can protect themselves by executing living wills, he was flat wrong – at least as to the wrongful death part of the law.
Some quick background on wrongful death law (more than you’d probably ever want to know): These state laws are designed to provide the survivor with what he or she would have been expected to receive from the deceased: In most states, including Minnesota, damages can include some of the income that the deceased would have been expected to earn (whatever the survivor could have been expected to receive), as well as the loss of emotional support and companionship.
So what’s the problem for same-sex couples? Unlike most of tort law, suits for wrongful death are based not on judge-made (common) law, but on statutes that clearly define who’s eligible to recover. And most of the statutes continue to restrict recovery to certain named classes of survivors: In Minnesota, which is fairly typical in this regard, that’s limited to spouses and “next of kin.”
So why and how did judges in California and New York hold to the contrary? By looking to the purpose of the law, which is to compensate based on real loss, and to make sure that bad conduct is deterred. Since the strict categorical requirements of wrongful death laws frustrate those purposes, judges are tempted to “get creative.”
Given the purposes of the law and what the California judge called the “insurmountable obstacle” that gay and lesbian couples face in these cases – you can’t contract around a statute – why the veto?
Here’s a thought: Pawlenty wants to be President, and has to burnish his social conservative credentials first. So everything becomes a threat, suddenly, to “traditional marriage” – however tangential the message on marriage, and however real the costs to actual people.
Here are a few questions I’d like to ask Gov. Pawlenty.. I’m going to send them to his office (unless a reader living in Minnesota would like to!), but I don’t expect an answer.
“Governor, under the law as it now stands, a murderer would owe nothing to the surviving member of a same-sex couple, even if the deceased provided most of the support for that survivor. Can you explain and justify the policy that permits this result?”
“The result of these statutes is so unfair that judges in other states have ignored their language and looked to the purpose of the law in allowing these claims. Why not simply amend the law to better reflect the compensatory and deterrent purposes of wrongful death law?
“What advice would you give to same-sex couples to protect themselves against this result?
“If the same-sex couple had adopted a child, that child’s future prospects could be negatively and even dramatically affected by her surviving parent’s inability to recover for wrongful death. Why should that child be differently affected than the child of an otherwise identical opposite-sex couple?
“You described the law as “divisive.” Can you explain why this law is any more divisive than the one you signed last year, that prevented jointly owned homes from being sold to pay medical bills when one partner dies?”
Politicians in the Pawlenty mode continue to throw us under both the express and the local bus: Marriage and the puny but necessary baby steps that are necessitated by intransigence on full equality. We must hold him accountable, now and if he seeks the Presidency.
John Culhane is Professor of Law and Director of the Health Law Institute at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. He blogs about the role of law in everyday life, and about a bunch of other things (LGBT rights, public health, sports, pop culture, music philosophy and lots of personal stuff) at: http://wordinedgewise.org. A fuller bio can be found here. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.Obama urges lesbian, gay patience overturning ‘unjust laws’
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