Gay man can file wrongful-death suit as spouse

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 16 2003 12:00 AM ET

In what is believed to be an unprecedented decision, a New York judge has ruled that a gay man can sue a hospital as spouse of a man who died a year ago. John Langan can proceed with his wrongful death lawsuit against St. Vincent's Hospital in connection with Neal C. Spicehandler's death, Nassau County supreme court justice John P. Dunne said in a decision released Tuesday.

Adam Aronson, a lawyer for the gay rights group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the ruling is the first in the nation to treat a same-sex couple joined in a Vermont civil union as a married couple. The group represents Langan. "This is a significant building block toward securing full equality for same-sex relationships," Aronson said.

Michael Fagan, a spokesman for St. Vincent's, refused to discuss the case, saying the hospital does not comment on pending litigation.

Langan and Spicehandler exchanged vows and rings in a civil ceremony in Vermont in November 2000, soon after such unions became legal. They had been together 15 years before their civil union ceremony. Spicehandler was struck by a car on February 12, 2002, and taken to St. Vincent's, where he died three days later of medical complications. Langan sued the hospital as Spicehandler's spouse, alleging that Spicehandler's treatment by medical professionals was negligent and reckless.

The hospital argued that the men's civil union was a "narrow circumstance," allowing for an exception under the federal doctrine that requires states to recognize each other's laws.

In his 25-page decision, Dunne said that state law allows a common-law spouse from another state to sue for wrongful death and that same right should be afforded to a same-sex partner joined by Vermont's civil union law. He noted that state law does not define "spouses" as being of different sexes. Dunne cautioned that he was not ruling whether Langan should be considered Spicehandler's spouse in New York "for all purposes." The judge limited the ruling to his spousal status for purposes of the lawsuit.