HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s highest court ruled Wednesday that some legal rights of same-sex couples predate the state’s approvals of civil unions in 2005 and same-sex marriage in 2008, a decision that gay rights supporters call the first of its kind in the country.
The state Supreme Court issued a 6-0 decision overturning two lower court rulings and allowing a widow to sue a doctor in a medical malpractice case for the death of her spouse and the loss of her spouse’s companionship and income.
The alleged malpractice occurred from 2001 to 2004, a time when only married couples were allowed to sue for loss of spousal “consortium.”
“It’s another example of the Connecticut Supreme Court leading the way in recognizing that the love and commitment of same-sex couples is exactly the same as different-sex couples,” said Ben Klein, a lawyer for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston. “This will be an influential and important decision that other courts will look to.”
Connecticut was the second state after Massachusetts to approve gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Gay marriage bans that have been overturned in some other states continue to make their way through the courts.
The Connecticut case involved Margaret Mueller and Charlotte Stacey, insurance industry workers who lived in Stamford and Norwalk. They had a civil union in Connecticut in 2005 and got married in Massachusetts in 2008 after 23 years together under that state’s gay marriage law, shortly before the Connecticut Supreme Court approved gay marriage.
Mueller was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001. In 2005, however, Mueller and Stacey learned the diagnosis was wrong and she actually had appendix cancer. Mueller died in 2009 at age 62. Stacey said her death could have been prevented if the original diagnosis had been correct.
Mueller sued for malpractice, and a jury issued a $2.4 million verdict in her favor against one doctor, Iris Wertheim, after her death, said Stacey’s lawyer, Sean McElligott. Another doctor named in the lawsuit, Isidore Tepler, settled the malpractice claims.
The trial court and the state Appellate Court ruled against Stacey in her effort to sue Wertheim for loss of consortium, saying Stacey and Mueller weren’t married as required under the law.
“The Supreme Court sought fit to rectify this injustice,” said Stacey, 63, who now lives in Middletown. “It validates my loss of my spouse for the fact that what I suffered for the seven years that Marge had cancer … and all that I gave up and all that I don’t have because she died because of the malpractice.”
The Supreme Court said it wasn’t legally possible for Stacey and Mueller to be married or in a civil union at the time of the misdiagnosis, and the justices accepted the couple’s contention that they would have been married long ago if allowed.
“Society has come to accept the view that committed same sex couples … are entitled to the same social and legal recognition as committed opposite sex couples,” Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote in the ruling.
Lawyers in the case agreed the court ruled on an important issue but said the decision likely won’t affect many other cases because gay marriage has been legal in the state for six years and the statute of limitations on civil claims is two years.
Massachusetts is the only other state where such a case was debated. That state’s highest court ruled in 2008 against a lesbian widow seeking to sue for loss of companionship.
Wertheim’s lawyer, Eric Stockman, said his case was about applying Connecticut legal precedent, not gay marriage.
“Dr. Wertheim fully supported and understood the relationship that Miss Stacey had with Miss Mueller,” he said.