Friday, March 07, 2008

When they say "it's not about the money," it's usually about the money

We generally believe that sympathy does not make good public policy. And we think there can, and should, be a serious public policy debate on the awarding of financial compensation to survivors of persons killed in accidents outside of that person's future earning power to support their family that was lost with the death.

That's why we've been very skeptical of the efforts made since the tragic crash of Flight 5191 in Lexington to legalize financial awards for "loss of companionship" when someone loses their spouse through an accident that leads to a wrongful death civil suit.

Kathy Ryan, a Flight 5191 widow, has been pushing for such a law. She came a step closer for the second legislative session in a row, when such a bill was filed in the Senate this week by State Sen. Robert Stivers, a Clay County Republican who is also a lawyer. Ryan and another 5191 widow gave tearful testimony last year when the bill was being considered (which is why we say sympathy is not a good rack on which to hang a public policy hat) and said that they weren't advocating a change in existing law (which prohibits loss of companionship awards for spouses but allows it for parents and children) for their own enrichment, but for the sake of others who might experience such tragedy in the future.

The widows were treated with the proper amount of reverence, respect and sympathy when they testified before a Senate committee last year, but they felt personally slighted when Senate President David Williams raised the same questions we have about making public policy based on sympathy.

Why do we bring this up now, and in this manner?

Ryan has often stated that her efforts are not about the money. The bill sponsored by Stivers, and planned changes to a House bill currently under consideration in the lower chamber of the General Assembly, would not make compensatory damages for loss of consortium retroactive to the Flight 5191 crash which occurred in the summer of 2006. That, of course, means that Ryan and other surviving spouses would not be eligible for any "loss of consortium" benefits that might result from any wrongful death lawsuits.

Ryan's reaction? "It's obviously sad that it's not retroactive," was her quote in yesterday's Herald-Leader.

Why is it sad that you won't be eligible for financial compensation for "loss of consortium" if your efforts have been for others who may have the same misfortune in the future? Must be because you won't be getting the money.

We still have the utmost sympathy for Ryan and the other surviving family members of the 5191 fatalities, but we still don't think sympathy is a sound foundation for public policy. And we hate to see yet another example of it being about the money, despite earnest claims to the contrary.

We're still disgusted by the rush to sue literally in the week after the accident, the trolling for plaintiffs done by out-of-state law firms through ads in the H-L, and the general litigious nature of our society. Seeing another play on sympathy as the basis for rushing into questionable legislation doesn't go down to well in light of what's gone on since that hot August morning in 2006.

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