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Supreme Court “DOMA” Ruling May Soon Affect Rights of Couples in Illinois

Illinois nursing home neglect and abuse cases are just one type of injury lawsuit that fall of the rubric of “tort” law. All tort law cases are guided by different procedural rules applicable at both the state and federal levels. Those rules dictate general principles like “who” can sue and “what” they can recover. All of those rules are separate from specific arguments about whether someone was or was not injured due to negligence.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling in a high-profile case that may eventually affect the applicability of those tort rules for some Illinois couples.

The case, officially known as U.S. v Windsor, was a legal challenge to the constitutionality of part of the federal known as DOMA — The Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA was a 1996 law that, among other things, prevented the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same sex couples, regardless of whether they were sanctioned by an individual state. In other words, because of DOMA, even couples in states that allow it, like Iowa, were never able to receive any federal benefits.

Now, as a result of the court’s 5-4 opinion, that disparate treatment is no longer. All legally married couples–regardless of sexual orientation–will be treated equally under federal law.

Legal Rights with Marriage
Some of those rights associated with marriage have direct bearing on the civil justice system and recovery in injury lawsuits. For example, all state and federal wrongful death statutes only allow certain individuals to file such suits. A spouse is usually the first person on the list–“friends” are never able to seek such recovery. Similarly, only spouses can usually seek “loss of consortium” damages. In addition, spouses are protected from testifying adversely against one another at trial.

Therefore, as a result of this DOMA decision, married same sex couples will be afforded these same protections on a federal level.

Illinois Consequences
But will this apply to same sex couples in Illinois? The short answer: No. At least not right now.

That is because same sex couples in Illinois are not allowed to marry. Instead, Illinois only provides for civil unions for these couples. It seems clear that the DOMA decision is only confined to those couples who are lawfully married in one of the twelve states that currently allowed such unions.

Yet, many suggest that Illinois may be the next state to treat gay and straight couples equally under the law. The Illinois Senate passed a marriage equality bill in February and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has been vocal in his support. That only leaves the Illinois House to pass such a bill to make it law. A vote was almost taken on the matter in May, but it was apparently a few votes short. Many suspect that another vote will be pursued this Fall or perhaps next Spring. If Illinois does pass a marriage equality bill, then this DOMA decision will allow those newly married couples to parity under federal law for injury lawsuit purposes.

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