Gay partner's wrongful death suit OK'd
[NEW YORK] - A state judge in Nassau County, N.Y., ruled on Monday that a Vermont civil union should be recognized for the purpose of filing a wrongful death suit.
John Langan lost his partner of 15 years, Neal Conrad Spicehandler, during medical treatment for a broken leg. But when Langan sued Manhattan's St. Vincent's Hospital, where the unexpected death took place, the hospital argued that he lacked standing. Although Langan and Spicehandler were joined in a civil union in November of 2000, they were obviously not legally married. In most states, only legal relatives can sue for wrongful death or medical malpractice.
In his ruling Monday, Judge John P. Dunne observed that common law spouses from out of state are allowed to sue for wrongful death under New York law.
"It is impossible," he wrote, "to justify, under equal protection principles, withholding the same recognition from a union which meets all the requirements of a marriage in New York but for the sexual orientation of its partners."
Although Dunne's opinion is confined to the question of Langam's standing to sue, it represents the first time a court has extended the rights of a civil union beyond the borders of Vermont. Last month, a Texas judge appeared to do so, dissolving the civil union of two Beaumont men. But within days, the state attorney general issued a letter directing the judge to set aside his ruling, and the judge complied. The men subsequently withdrew their divorce petition.
Civil unions grant same-sex couples all the rights designated for a "spouse" under Vermont law. Two other courts, aside from the Texas court, have declined to recognize a civil union. First, a Georgia appellate court ruled that a lesbian's civil union partner could not be considered a "relative" for the purposes of child visitation restrictions. Second, a Connecticut court refused to divorce a civil union couple in a case that was pending before the state Supreme Court when the petitioner died.
In a third case, three civil union couples in Indiana are asking the state to recognize their status and/or allow them to marry under Indiana law.
Civil union couples argue that the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause, which mandates that all states respect the public acts, records and judgments of sister states, requires other states to recognize the rights of a civil union outside of Vermont. Over three-quarters of the 5,000 or so couples with Vermont civil unions live outside the state.