Brief Fact Summary.
Johnson (Plaintiff) sued Jamaica Hospital (Defendant) for negligent infliction of emotional distress after her infant daughter was kidnapped from the hospital.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A cause of action for emotional or psychological damages only exists when plaintiff was within the zone of danger when the injury occurred and her injuries are the result of seeing the serious physical injury or death caused by defendant’s negligence.
Absent a duty upon which liability can be based, there is no right of recovery for mental distress resulting from the breach of a contract-related duty.View Full Point of Law
Plaintiff gave birth to her daughter Kawana at Defendant hospital. Plaintiff was discharged after several days, but Kawana remained in the hospital. Plaintiff returned to the hospital a week later to visit Kawana, but Kawana could not be found. The hospital had received two bomb threats that day and during the evacuations, Kawana had apparently been abducted. Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant, alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress. Kawana was located and returned to Plaintiff four and a half months after the abduction. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The appellate court affirmed and the court of appeals granted review. A separate suit was filed on Kawana’s behalf as well, but those issues are not discussed here.
If a plaintiff was not within the zone of danger when the injury causing emotional distress occurred, does she have a cause of action for negligence based upon her emotional distress?
(Kaye, J.) No. A cause of action for emotional or psychological damages only exists when plaintiff was within the zone of danger when the injury occurred and her injuries are the result of seeing the serious physical injury or death caused by defendant’s negligence. Neither of those requirements was met here. The hospital does not have a duty towards Plaintiff and imposing one would create expansive liability for indirect emotional injuries, which is against public policy. Defendant may have been negligent in caring for Kawana, and may be liable for that negligence, but is not liable for the emotional damages suffered by Plaintiff. Reversed and complaint dismissed.
(Meyer, J.) Defendant interfered with Plaintiff’s custodial rights. Hospitals have security procedures in place and have a duty to exercise reasonable care so that an infant is not taken out of the hospital by an unauthorized individual. The majority’s denial of liability here on the grounds that it will create broad liability is ridiculous.
The majority opinion notes that most state courts follow this approach. Although the outcome seems severe, the hospital still faces suit brought on behalf of Kawana. It does seem as though Plaintiff’s emotional distress was sincere, as would any parent’s be in this situation. Most parents would expect better attention to the security of their child in the hospital and allowing recovery would not likely lead to the rush of litigation feared by the majority.