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Mitchell v. Rochester Ry.

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Brief Fact Summary.

The plaintiff was about to board a streetcar when the defendant’s horse car nearly hit her. She fainted from the fright and excitement of nearly being run over. She later suffered a miscarriage and illness that she claims was a result of the near accident.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

One cannot recover for mere fright caused by another’s negligence without direct physical harm.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

From a policy standpoint, courts also feared a flood of litigation□ in cases where the injury complained of may be easily feigned without detection, and where the damages must rest upon mere conjecture and speculation.

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Facts.

On April 1, 1891, the plaintiff was standing on a crosswalk on Main Street in Rochester, NY, waiting to board one of the defendant’s streetcars. Just as she was about to step up onto the streetcar, a horse car of the defendant came down the street. The horse car came so close to the plaintiff that she was standing between the two horses heads once it stopped. She was not physically injured, but she claimed that she fainted from fright and excitement caused by the proximity of the horse car to hitting her. She later miscarried and suffered from illness, claiming they were the results of the near accident. Medical testimony was given to show that this was a possible result of the mental shock she suffered. The court assumes the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s lack of contributory negligence.

Issue.

Is the defendant liable for the injuries resulting from the plaintiff’s fright?

Held.

No. The plaintiff did not suffer any direct physical harm as a result of the accident that would allow for recovery. The lower court judgement is reversed.

Discussion.

The court notes that the plaintiff suffered no direct physical harm as a result of the accident. Fright itself is not something for which one can recover, even when caused by negligent conduct, so the consequences of fright, even physical ones, also do not form the basis for recovery. Further, it cannot be shown that the miscarriage was proximately caused by the defendant’s negligence—it was not the ordinary or natural result of a near accident that caused no physical harm. The injuries suffered by the plaintiff were caused by an unusual and unfortunate combination of circumstances that cannot be attributed to the defendant.


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