Politics & Government

5191-related bill looks finished

FRANKFORT - The bill that would allow surviving spouses to sue for loss of companionship appears to be dead, despite impassioned pleas and sharp rhetoric from spouses of those lost in the Comair Flight 5191 and Harlan County mine disasters.

Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Grayson, who chairs the Senate budget committee, says he has no plans to hear House Bill 403.

"In my opinion, that bill is dead for this session," Borders said yesterday.

Earlier in the day, four people whose spouses perished on Comair Flight 5191 held a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda to encourage Senate leaders to pass the bill.

Two widows said that, while working for the passage of the bill in the Senate, they had been accused of greed and personally attacked.

"Should you ever feel the pain that I've felt, I can only hope you won't be subjected to the same slap in the face from our government that I have," said Sarah King Fortney. Her husband, C.W., died when Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway Aug. 27 and crashed into a field next to Blue Grass Airport.

Kathy Ryan, whose husband, Michael, also died on Flight 5191, explained that in in Kentucky a person whose spouse suffers a personal injury may file a lawsuit for damages, but not if the spouse dies.

Kentucky is one of only four states that does not allow a surviving spouse to sue for loss of companionship, or, as it is legally known, consortium. The deceased's estate may sue for loss of income, and children may sue for loss of companionship, but spouses may not.

Senate President David Williams said he is concerned about the bill's effect on liability insurance costs for businesses and car owners. The measure would have an "indeterminate impact," Williams said.

"I grieve with them for their loss," Williams said. "But what they ask is a deviation from standard Kentucky law."

Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, called Williams' assertion that the bill might affect insurance rates "ridiculous."

"I've spoken with attorneys in the defense bar who said that is merely a smoke screen to avoid hearing this bill," Stein said.

The House had passed the bill, House Bill 403, by a 93-7 vote.

James Washington, husband of 5191 victim Victoria Washington, and Edith Mallory, widow of 5191 passenger Dan Mallory, also appeared at the Frankfort press conference.

"I'm very concerned as should anybody who has a spouse," said Mallory.

Borders said he understands that widows of Flight 5191 victims feel deep emotion regarding the bill.

But he said he wants to make sure the state does not encourage a "lottery mindset" when asking for jury awards related to tragedies.

Ryan, however, said that passing the bill would "not be a windfall for anyone."

David Fleenor, general counsel for Gov. Ernie Fletcher, said there is an incongruency in current state law that is not consistent with the law in 46 other states.

"The governor supports addressing this, but whether it can be done in the last days of the session is unclear," Fleenor said.

"This again points to the need for comprehensive tort reform, which the governor has consistently advocated," Fleenor said.

Borders said he hopes to speak with widows regarding the proposal before the legislature meets next year.

Stein said that the Senate is likely to face repercussions: "They certainly should be prepared to be held accountable."