Wrongful Death Bill Revived for 2009 Session

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For the third year in a row, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, will be sponsoring a bill that would allow Utahns to designate individuals who name designees in the case of death due to medical malpractice or negligence.   

Under current Utah law, only spouses and biological, adopted and minor step-children may sue in the case of a wrongful death. McCoy’s bill would change this to allow individuals to designate a person with whom they are in “a mutually supportive and dependent relationship,” such as a same-sex partner or a romantic partner of the opposite sex to which the person is not married. The bill defines “mutually supportive and dependent” as the sharing of a residence or assets, and the naming of the individual on such things as a retirement plan, health insurance policy or will. It also stipulates that the deceased’s minor children, if any, shall receive priority in any financial settlement.

Like many bills seeking to advance gay rights during the 2008 session, McCoy’s fared badly. Although the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation, the bill never made it onto the Senate calendar for debate. Near the end of the session, Senators bounced it back to the Senate Rules Committee. Much of its controversy centered upon the possibility of an individual designation diluting the rights of children and spouses—particularly if an individual saw fit to designate an adulterous lover as a wrongful death beneficiary. And, of course, legislators feared that permitting the designation of a same-sex partner violated Utah’s constitutional prohibition on gay marriage.

In its current form, SB 32 answers this last question by stating: “Neither a grant of standing under this section, nor anything else in this section, nor any finding by the court under this section may be construed as recognizing or treating a mutually supportive and dependent relationship as a marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, or any other legal or relationship status that intends to approximate the design qualities, significance, or effect of marriage as defined in Article I, Section 29 of the Utah Constitution,” the section that bans gay marriage.”

Like many other bills in this session that involve the rights of gay people, SB 32 is part of Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative. The local gay rights group proposed these five pieces of legislation following the passage of Proposition 8 in California. At that time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which supported the measure re-banning gay marriage in California, stated that it did not oppose “rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights.”

The church has yet to respond to Equality Utah’s request for its support of the initiative.

Other Common Ground Initiative bills include legislation Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Christine Johnson seeking to secure workplace and housing protections for gay and transgender people; a bill mandating employee insurance plans to cover unmarried partners if they offer coverage to spouses; legislation that would create a statewide domestic partner registry that would extend inheritance, insurance and housing rights; and a bill that would clarify Utah’s constitutional ban on gay marriage that forbids arrangements other than marriage from receiving legal recognition.

As of press time, only McCoy’s bill had received a number.

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