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Lambda asks appeals court to allow wrongful death suit

Lambda asks appeals court to allow wrongful death suit

In the first case in the nation that appropriately recognized a couple who entered into a Vermont civil union as spouses outside that state, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund asked an appeals court Wednesday to uphold an earlier ruling that a gay man in New York is a legal spouse and able to sue St. Vincent's Hospital for medical negligence leading to his longtime partner's death. Lambda is representing John Langan in his fight to have his relationship with his deceased spouse, Neal Conrad Spicehandler, treated equally. Last year's lower court decision gave Langan the right to sue St. Vincent's Hospital for wrongful death medical malpractice leading to Spicehandler's death. Lambda had argued successfully that because Langan and his partner were as legally bound to each other as the law then allowed a gay couple to be, the two men should be recognized as spouses. St. Vincent's Hospital appealed the court's decision last year. "The state court's decision was a tremendous victory for same-sex couples in New York and elsewhere," said Adam Aronson, a Lambda staff attorney handling the case. "For many couples, a Vermont civil union is the strongest legal protection available for their relationship. They should be treated the same as any other spouses whether they're in Vermont or elsewhere." In February 2002, Spicehandler was struck by a car driven by a New Jersey man who was on a days-long hit-and-run spree that ultimately injured two dozen people on several Manhattan streets. When he was taken to St. Vincent's, the only person Spicehandler asked the staff to call was Langan, who in turn called Spicehandler's other family members. By the time Langan arrived at the hospital, Spicehandler was being taken into surgery to repair a broken leg. A couple of days later, on Valentine's Day, Spicehandler's broken leg was operated on a second time. Langan waited for Spicehandler to return from surgery that night, visited with him, and kissed him goodnight. Early the next morning he was awakened by a call from St. Vincent's Hospital telling him that Spicehandler had died. When St. Vincent's was unable to satisfactorily explain how the routine surgery turned fatal, Langan and Spicehandler's mother, Ruth, sued St. Vincent's for wrongful death and medical malpractice. They seek to recover for Spicehandler's pain and suffering before he died, as well as lost financial support. In a ruling last April, Nassau County supreme court justice John P. Dunne noted that "common-law" spouses from other states are regularly recognized as spouses in New York and said, "[I]t is impossible 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." New York law, he noted, does not define "spouses" as people of different sexes. While Dunne's ruling doesn't determine whether same-sex couples should be treated as spouses "for all purposes," Lambda said that it has significant implications. St. Vincent's Hospital, in the heart of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, is asking the state court to block Langan from suing for wrongful death and medical malpractice, claiming that because he and Spicehandler were a gay couple, their 15-year relationship should not be recognized legally. Langan and Spicehandler were joined in a civil union in Vermont and also had several legal documents reflecting their relationship, and the hospital treated Langan as Spicehandler's spouse throughout the medical ordeal. "Conrad was my soul mate and my spouse," Langan said. "We loved each other as deeply as two people can love, and we did everything we could to formalize, legalize, and protect our relationship, our love, and our commitment to each other."

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