Families of Buffalo massacre victims call on governor to change law
"Our mother's life mattered," said Garnell Whitfield Jr.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Some family members of those killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo are asking the governor of New York to sign a bill that will overhaul the state's 175-year-old wrongful death statute they say devalues the lives of their lost loved ones.
The Grieving Families Act, which was passed by the New York State Legislature prior to the May 14 massacre at Tops supermarket on the East Side of Buffalo and sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk, would update the wrongful death law and bring equitable justice to grieving families.
"Our mother's life mattered, all of our loved one's lives mattered, and to have them looked at as something less-than based on whether they worked or not, it's outrageous, it's discriminatory and it's wrong," said former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose mother, Ruth Whitfield, was among the 10 Black people allegedly killed by a self-professed white supremacist on May 14 at a Tops supermarket on Buffalo's East Side.
New York's current wrongful death law values a person's life based on their income.
If signed by Hochul, the Grieving Families Act would allow courts to consider grief and loss when determining how much a family can be compensated by insurance companies, regardless of income. It would also extend the time permitted to bring a wrongful death action to court by 18 months and allow families to claim compensation for funeral expenses and loss of companionship.
Terry Connors, an attorney who represents seven families who lost loved ones in the Buffalo massacre, called the current law "antiquated," at a press conference Thursday and said it's been on the books since the 1800s and discriminates against young people and the elderly, like many of those who died in the Tops shooting. He added that the current statute "perpetuates those socioeconomic challenges that we've been fighting to repeal for years and years."
Connors cited the the deaths of Tops shooting victims 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield and 62-year-old Geraldine Talley, asking if anyone thinks that because of their ages "their lives were less than someone else?"
"Do you think (their families) grieve any less because they lost their mother who was elderly? That's what this statute does. It discriminates against them. It doesn't allow them to be compensated for what they've gone through," Connors said at the press conference.
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who represents East Buffalo, said the legislation was passed almost unanimously with bipartisan support.
"It comes down to valuing life no matter what the age, what the circumstances," Peoples-Stokes said at the press conference.
However, she said she has heard from people in the insurance industry who are "adamantly opposed" to the bill.
"By basing the value of a life on the size of the paycheck they brought home, New York's wrongful death law systematically undervalues the lives of people of color," Peoples-Stokes said. "We know that equal pay for equal work is not the reality we live in just yet and that when we lose someone close to us, it is the loss of love and future memories that leave the biggest impact."
Peoples-Stokes noted that most of the victims killed or injured in the Tops mass shooting were age 50 or older.
"There were also seniors," she said. "Without this law, their lives won't even be valued at all. That is just absurd to me."
Geraldine Talley's son, Mark Talley, said that while he wants to see the bill signed, he remains "pessimistic."
"I hope it gets passed, but it’s been 150 years and there’s been a lot of different attacks over a century and nothing still has happened," Mark Talley, who attended the news conference, told ABC News.
Hochul has until Dec. 31 to sign the legislation.
Avi Smalls, a spokesperson for Hochul, told ABC News in a statement that the governor is reviewing this legislation.
"Governor Hochul is committed to standing with her neighbors in the East Buffalo community in the wake of the white supremacist attack at the Tops supermarket, and took swift action to pass common-sense gun safety laws, provide resources to help the community recover, and direct millions of dollars in investments for East Buffalo," Smalls said.
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