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Twin bills to provide child support in drunk driving deaths meet same fate

Lawmakers voted down two bills that aimed to provide child support payments for any child whose parent or guardian was killed by a drunk driver.

Capital News Service

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By Jackson Rebraca

Lawmakers voted down two bills that aimed to provide child support payments for any child whose parent or guardian was killed by a drunk driver.

Del. Jeffrey Campbell, R-Smyth, introduced House Bill 1549 and Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, introduced Senate Bill 1288.

Similar legislation has been introduced in other states as Bentley’s Law. Bentley’s Law is named for Bentley Williams, whose parents and infant brother were killed by a drunk driver in Missouri in April 2021. William’s grandmother Cecilia Williams then led the charge, reportedlyworking with local legislators to draft legislation to take to the Missouri General Assembly.

Bentley’s Law failed to pass the Missouri legislature in 2022. The same legislation has been put forth in 24 other states, including Virginia, according to KSDK.

The Virginia Senate bill failed unanimously in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary by a 14-0 count. The House measure passed through the House of Delegates with bipartisan support, on a 66-32 vote. The House bill hit a dead end in the same Senate committee, but on a 10-5 vote to pass by indefinitely.

Drunk driving was responsible for 247 deaths in 2021, according to the Virginia DMV.

Drunk driving is a “plague upon the state,” Campbell told a House subcommittee panel during the bill’s hearing.

Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, testified in favor of the bill. MADD has supported Bentley’s Law since it was first introduced in Missouri.

“This will make individuals think twice before getting behind the wheel and driving impaired, and it’s also about justice for victims,” Harris said to the House subcommittee.

Richard Garriott from the Virginia Family Law Coalition spoke against the bill, saying that it would change “the dynamic of child support in Virginia.” The law coalition did not support it last year, either, Garriott said.

Child support rulings are not static and often require “almost annual litigation,” said Daniel Gray, head of the Virginia Family Law Coalition.

“You’re really creating a way of having people that would normally have this dealt with one time in the context of a wrongful death action consign to multiple years of litigation,” Gray said about the bills.

Virginia has a wrongful death statute that allows parties to sue for loss of income, care and sorrow, among other claims, Gray said.

“There’s already a very expansive wrongful death statute that people can take advantage of and get relief of the type that this bill is trying to introduce,” Gray said.

However, not everyone can afford the cost of a lawsuit, Campbell said to the subcommittee panel.

“In many cases the offending party simply doesn’t have assets and there’s not adequate insurance coverage,” Campbell said. “We end up with children left, in many cases, as wards of the state and the taxpayers are asked to pick up the burden.”

Some Senate members with a litigation background spoke against DeSteph’s bill in committee.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, agreed with the Senate bill “in spirit” but that the bill felt like “a solution looking for a problem,” he said.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, questioned why the law would apply only to deaths from drunk driving and not other crimes, or whether the law would apply when a parent is permanently disabled but not killed.

“It’s not clear to me why this is a policy solution to a specific problem,” Surovell said.

No comment or public testimony was given for the House bill hearing in the Senate.

Roderick Howard, MADD’s mid-Atlantic region executive director, expressed disappointment over the bills’ failure but stated that MADD will continue to support Bentley’s Law as long as it is introduced in any state legislature.

Tennessee is the only state where the legislation has passed. It was renamed Ethan, Hailey and Bentley’s Law to include the names of the children of Nicholas Galinger, a Tennessee police officer who was hit and killed by a drunk driver, according to MADD.

The legislation may have a chance in future years, DeSteph said.

“I think it’s a great idea, and sometimes it takes two or three years to get a great idea through,” he said.

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