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Portee v. Jaffee

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Mrs. Portee (Plaintiff) suffered severe psychological harm after watching her son sustain fatal injuries in a malfunctioning elevator and sued the building owners and elevator manufacturers (Defendants) for emotional distress.

     

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A plaintiff may recover for emotional distress caused by negligence that leads to the injury of another person even when the plaintiff is not herself in danger of physical injury.

     

    Facts.

    Plaintiff’s seven year-old son became trapped between an elevator door and the wall of the elevator shaft. When the elevator moved, her son was dragged up the shaft and suffered severe injuries. The boy was trapped for several hours as emergency workers attempted to rescue him before he died from his injuries. Plaintiff spent those hours at his side as he suffered and died. As a result of this accident, Plaintiff suffered severe psychological distress and even attempted suicide. Plaintiff sued for damages for her emotional distress. Defendant moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion and Plaintiff appealed.

     

    Issue.

    May a plaintiff recover for emotional distress caused by negligence that leads to the injury of another person even when the plaintiff was not in danger of physical injury?

     

    Held.

    (Pashman, J.) Yes. A plaintiff may recover for emotional distress caused by negligence that leads to the injury of another person even when the plaintiff is not herself in danger of physical injury. The legal concept of duty as it has been established is a policy judgment that a person should be expected to control his actions to avoid a risk of harm to another only when risk of injury to another is reasonably foreseeable. Previous decisions have limited recovery to situations where there was a physical impact on the plaintiff, assuming that only injuries with a physical impact are foreseeable. However, psychological injury to a parent witnessing the violent death of her child is clearly foreseeable. The physical impact rule should be discarded. In cases where a plaintiff seeks recovery based upon the injuries of another, the court should examine the relationship between the plaintiff and the injured party, whether the plaintiff saw the injury contemporaneously, how close the plaintiff was to the injured party, and the severity of the injury. In applying this test here, the injury to Plaintiff was clearly foreseeable. Reversed.

     

    Discussion.

    In Dillon v. Legg, 441 P.2d 912 (Cal. 1968), a woman recovered for emotional distress caused by an accident that injured her child. With the exception of the severity of the injury, the factors listed in Portee come from Dillon.


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