Brief Fact Summary. The Circuit Court for Howard County (Maryland) dismissed the tort claims brought by Plaintiff alleging breach of contract and tort claims, including negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, resulting from a sexual relationship.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. One cannot sue to recover for injuries arising from “defilement of the marriage bed” or from an interference with the marriage by simply casting the defendant’s conduct as a breach of contract, or negligence, or some other intentional tort. To recover in an action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must show: (1) conduct that is intentional or reckless; (2) conduct that is also extreme and outrageous; (3) a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress; and (4) that the emotional distress is severe. When extreme and outrageous conduct is directed at a third person, the actor is subject to liability if he intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress (1) to a member of such person’s immediate family who is present at the time, whether or not such distress results in bodily harm; or (2) to any other person who is present at the time, if such distress results in bodily harm.
As the Homer court observed, there are limited circumstances in which a physician or psychotherapist may be subject to a duty to third persons that overrides the duty to the patient, where the patient has, or is thought to have, a communicable disease or otherwise presents a clear danger to a specific person.View Full Point of Law
* Can a Plaintiff successfully sue a therapist for adulterous actions under the banner of breach of contract?
* Does a psychiatrist owe a duty of care to a patient’s spouse?
* May a former husband recover in a third-party action for intentional infliction of emotional distress when he was not present during the conduct in question?
Held. The court held that the circuit court properly dismissed Plaintiff’s claims: 1) a psychiatrist’s professional duty is owed to the patient and not to the patient’s spouse, thus Plaintiff had no standing to sue; and 2) the of intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was unfounded because the former husband was not present when the psychiatrist allegedly seduced his wife.
Discussion. Intentional infliction of mental distress exists when the defendant, by extreme and outrageous conduct, intentionally or recklessly causes the victim severe mental distress. It should be noted that this is the only area of tort where “reckless” infers intent. Homer addresses an extended issue with regard to the intentional infliction contention: the situation where a third person is alleging the wrongful action. In other words, this is an area where transferred intent applies. As the court explained, “[w]here extreme and outrageous conduct is directed at a third person, the actor is subject to liability if he intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress (1) to a member of such person’s immediate family who is present at the time, whether or not such distress results in bodily harm, or (2) to any other person who is present at the time, if such distress results in bodily harm.” Generally, courts have award a third-party victim recovery only if, in addition
to proving the prima facie elements, the third party is (1) a close relative of the primary victim; (2) present at the scene of the outrageous conduct against the primary victim; and (3) the defendant is aware of the close relative’s proximity.
With regard to the negligence claim, the court addressed first the prima facie elements of a negligence action: “[t]o recover in an action for negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty to him which was breached. That duty, moreover, must be one that the law is prepared to recognize.” The court dismissed the claim because the duty owed was to the patient, and not to her spouse, explaining, “[a] therapist’s professional duty must run to his or her patient and not to the patient’s spouse, even if the spouse is the one who initially employed the therapist and is paying the therapist’s fees.”
Addressing the action for breach of contract, the court recognized that the plaintiff in this case was in essence attempting to sue for “alienation of affections. While noting that such actions are not necessarily barred under tort law, the court states, “[t]hat is precluded, however, is the refitting of the abolished actions into other forms.”