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Brain Injury Lawsuits, Married Couples, & Federal Law

What do brain injury lawsuits, marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court have in common?

More than you think.

Last week was an important one for those who support the rights of all couples under the law, regardless of sexual orientation. That is because the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in two hotly contested cases related to marriage rights for same sex couples. In one of those cases (U.S. v Windsor), the Court struck down the critical portion of a law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA was the law passed in 1996 which forbid the federal government from recognizing same sex couples as married, regardless of whether those couples were lawfully married by their own state.

In so doing, the Court opened up to same sex married couples more than 1,100 federal benefits (and obligations) which are tied to marriage. Those rights touch on virtually every area of life, from tax benefits and immigration privileges to many aspects which affect the civil justice system.

Legal Rights & Marriage
As our attorneys frequently discuss, most brain injury lawsuits are rooted in tort law, often alleging negligence by automobile drivers, medical professionals, or others. It is important to remember the way that marriage laws affect tort rules.

For example, if someone dies as a result of negligence, then only certain individuals can seek accountability via a wrongful death lawsuit. A spouse is usually the individual given standing to file that claim and recovery following a death. But under federal law, before this DOMA decision, same sex partners–no matter how long their relationship–were never treated as spouses. Thus, a partner was denied the ability to recover via a wrongful death lawsuit.

Similarly, under federal law, DOMA denied lawfully married same sex couples the right to seek “loss of consortium” damages following injuries to their partners caused by negligence. This is a special type of loss that recognizes the unique harm to a partner in a relationship when the other is injured.

Illinois Not There Yet
Following the DOMA decision, married same sex couples will now be treated the same under federal law, including retaining the right to sue for wrongful death and seek loss of consortium claims in federal cases.

Importantly, though, this does not apply to committed same sex couples in Illinois. That is because same sex couples in Illinois are not allowed to marry. The DOMA ruling only changes things for those couples in states which allow full marriage equality. Illinois does not, and so same sex couples here are still denied equal federal rights.

But, there is a good chance that state lawmakers will soon consider changing the law to ensure full equality for all couples. The Illinois Senate already passed an equality law in February. The House was unable to garner enough support this cycle, but a vote may be taken later in the Fall or early next year. If it does pass and Illinois allows same sex couples to marry, then this DOMA ruling will prove critical in ensuring those couples have the same legal rights as all others.

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