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Dillon v. Legg

Citation. 68 Cal. 2d 728
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Brief Fact Summary.

While driving his car, Defendant stuck and killed Dillon, a child as she was crossing a public street. Plaintiffs sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Plaintiff can recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress even if he is not within the “zone of danger.”


While driving his car, Defendant stuck and killed Dillon, a child as she was crossing a public street. Dillon’s mother and sister, Cheryl (Plaintiffs) sued Defendant for wrongful death. Plaintiffs also sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court found that the mother was in close proximity to Dillon at the time of collision, but that Defendant’s car never threatened her safety because she was outside the zone-of-danger. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the mother’s claim for emotional distress. Cheryl’s action for emotional distress was not dismissed because she was in the zone-of-danger and feared for her own safety. The mother appealed.


Can a defendant be liable for the negligent infliction of emotional distress to a plaintiff when he or she is outside the zone-of-danger?


Yes. Judgment reversed.
* If any defense is sustained and Defendant is not found liable for the death of Dillon due to the contributory negligence of the mother, sister or child, the court does not believe that Plaintiffs should recover for he emotional trauma, which they allegedly suffered.
* This case exposes the hopeless artificiality of the zone-of-danger rule. The court can hardly justify relief to Cheryl for trauma, which she suffered upon apprehension of Dillon’s death, and yet deny it to the mother because Cheryl was some few yards closer to the accident.
* The requirement of presence in the zone is that one in the zone fears the danger of impact, yet impact is not necessary for recovery.
* We doubt that the problem of the fraudulent claim is substantially more pronounced in the case of a mother claiming personal injury resulting from seeing her child killed than in other areas of tort law, for which the right to recover damages is well established in California.
* Damages are allowed for mental suffering. The mental injury can be in aggravation of, or “parasitic to” an established tort. Emotional distress, if inflicted intentionally, constitutes an independent tort. The application of tort law can never be a matter of mathematical precision. The process cannot be perfect, yet we cannot let difficulties of adjudication frustrate the principle that there be a remedy for every substantial wrong.
* The chief element in determining whether Defendant owes a duty or obligation to Plaintiff is the foreseeability of the risk. Duty must be adjudicated only on a case-by-case basis.
* In determining whether Defendant should reasonably foresee the jury to the mother, the courts will take into account such factors as the following: (1) whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident; (2) whether the shock resulted form a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident; and (3) whether plaintiff and victim were closely related. The evaluation of these factors will indicate the degree of Defendant’s foreseeability.
* In light of these factors the court will determine whether the accident and harm were reasonably foreseeable. In this case, the presence of the above factors indicates that the mother has alleged a prima facie case.


There are two dissenting opinions in the casebook
* (Chief Justice Traynor) The court’s decision in Amaya v. Home Ice, Fuel & Supply Co., was correctly decided and should not be overruled.
* (Justice Burke) There are too many unanswered questions. Our trial courts will not easily escape the burden of distinguishing between litigants on the basis of the artificial and unpredictable distinctions laid out by the majority.


It is no longer required that Plaintiff be in the zone-of-danger in order to maintain an action for the negligent infliction of emotional dist

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