N.Y.: Supplement spousal liability: A history

September 5, 2023

Strangely, the legal concept of spousal liability has been in the news recently. This is due to a recent change in New York state law that will now require all auto insurance policies issued in the state to provide coverage for supplemental spousal liability—unless a policyholder opts out of the coverage. When learning about this change most people react one of two ways: “What is this coverage?” or “Wait! I wasn’t covered for my spouse’s actions already.” Let’s tackle both of those questions.

Supplemental spousal liability coverage provides liability coverage to a person if his or her spouse is responsible for an accident and person is injured or killed as a result. For example, if a person negligently hit his or her spouse with the family car while pulling in the driveway, SSL coverage would apply. However, this coverage is a relatively recent option for New York state policyholders. Prior to 2002, insurance policies were not permitted to include coverage for spousal liability. This prohibition dates back more than 150 years ago to a common law doctrine called “interspousal immunity.”

Typically, when a person is harmed in some way by the negligence of another, the person is permitted to bring a cause of action against the negligent party for damages. This is the basis of our civil court system. The doctrine of “interspousal immunity “creates an exception to that general rule. Under the doctrine, a negligent act committed by one spouse against another spouse does not give raise to a cause of action. In other words, a person is prohibited from suing his or her spouse for negligence. The reasoning behind this doctrine is that a married couple is considered to be one person (traditionally the husband) under the law. It is impossible for people to sue themselves. This legal doctrine found its way into American common law during Antebellum Period (1812-65) and has proven a stubborn holdover of yesteryear.

It is often true that society moves faster than the laws that keep society running in an orderly fashion. The doctrine of interspousal immunity is a perfect example. While society has moved past the concept that a woman forfeits her identity upon entering marriage, the laws have not been so quick to catch up. That is why until 2002, insurance carriers were not required to offer the coverage and there was a legal presumption that the coverage was not provided, absent express language in a policy stating otherwise. And it was not until 2023, that the coverage became standard on all auto policies. The recent change in the way in which SSL coverage is added to a policy is an acknowledgement by the state that this coverage should have existed in the first place.

Changes in the law—no matter how well-meaning—can lead to a lot of confusion and questions. PIA has put together a FAQ of the questions you and your clients want to know the answers to about this new law.

Bradford J. Lachut, Esq.
PIA Northeast | + posts

Bradford J. Lachut, Esq., joined PIA as government affairs counsel for the Government & Industry Affairs Department in 2012 and then, after a four-month leave, he returned to the association in 2018 as director of government & industry affairs responsible for all legal, government relations and insurance industry liaison programs for the five state associations. Prior to PIA, Brad worked as an attorney for Steven J. Baum PC, in Amherst, and as an associate attorney for the law office of James Morris in Buffalo. He also spent time serving as senior manager of government affairs as the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a chamber of commerce serving the Buffalo, N.Y., region, his hometown. He received his juris doctorate from Buffalo Law School and his Bachelor of Science degree in Government and Politics from Utica College, Utica, N.Y. Brad is an active Mason and Shriner.

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