The Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday became what is believed to be the first state legislature to pass a bill that would require drunken drivers to pay child support if they kill the parent of a minor.
The bill, named “Ethan, Haile, and Bentley’s Law” after children who lost their parents to intoxicated drivers, passed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday and had passed unanimously in the House in February. The measure will be sent to Gov. Bill Lee, who will review the legislation before deciding whether to sign it into law, a spokesman for the governor said.
“As I promised, I will do what it takes to protect the future of our most valuable resources, our children,” Representative Mark Hall, who introduced the bill, said in a statement.
“Tennesseans care for each other and we will do everything in our power to hold people accountable who chose to do harm,” he added.
The bill includes the names of the children of Nicholas Galinger, a Chattanooga police officer who was struck and killed three years ago by a drunken driver. He is survived by two children, Ethan and Haile.
The 38-year-old officer was inspecting an overflowing manhole late one night in February 2019 when Janet Hinds hit him with her car and fled, according to The Associated Press. Ms. Hinds was sentenced to 11 years in prison in February after being convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication.
If signed into law, the measure would require those convicted of such crimes involving the death of a parent to pay child support for the victim’s minor children. It would last until each child reaches 18 years of age and has graduated from high school or until the class of which the child is a member when turning 18 has graduated.
Courts would determine a reasonable amount of child support by considering the financial needs and resources of the child or children, the financial resources of the surviving parent or guardian — including the state if the child is in the custody of the department of children’s services — and the standard of living the children are used to.
Mr. Hall introduced the legislation in January after being contacted by Cecilia Williams, a Missouri grandmother who worked with legislative representatives in her own state to write Bentley’s Law, named after her 5-year-old grandson.
She got the idea for the bill after her son, his fiancée and the youngest of their children were killed by a drunken driver in April 2021. Her son, Cordell Williams, was survived by his two older children — Bentley, then 4, and Mason, 2.
While waiting for the trial in the case, Ms. Williams began researching consequences for drunken driving and learned that in many states, potential jail time was a few years, and often times sentences ended early. She wanted to do something that “felt more just.”
“The one thing people value most in this world is their money,” she said in an interview on Thursday. She thought that if the consequences for drunken driving were more long-term and financially tangible, they would give pause to those who might drive drunk.
“There’s some justice there,” she said. “Families are going to get the compensation that they deserve and should have been able to still have from their parents. We’re all more than willing to raise the children that are left behind, but the problem with that is not everyone is financially stable.”
Since the crash, Ms. Williams has been caring for her grandson and has worked with 17 states to introduce Bentley’s Law into their legislatures. Tennessee is the first state to get the bill through both houses, she said.
Representatives in states like Pennsylvania, Alabama, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are in the process of reading and voting on their versions.