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Dillon v. Legg

Citation. 68 Cal. 2d 728, 441 P.2d 912, 69 Cal. Rptr. 72 (1968)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant negligently drove his car and killed Dillion. Dillion’s mom and sister both witnessed the accident and sued defendant for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

In awarding recovery for emotional shock upon witnessing another’s injury or death, the zone of danger doctrine is not a determinative factor.


Defendant negligently drove his car, hit and killed Dillon, a child who was crossing the street. Dillon’s mother and sister both witnessed the accident. Dillion’s mom sued defendant for Dillion’s wrongful death. She also sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress that was allegedly caused by witnessing the accident. The sister was very close to the curb that she might be endangered by defendant’s negligence too, so trial court held that the sister could claim that her emotional distress arose from the potential personal injury. However, trial court held that the mom was not at a place that defendant’s car would threaten her safety. Because she was outside the zone-of-danger, the trial court dismissed the mother’s claim for emotional distress.


Is defendant liable for the negligent infliction of emotional distress to a plaintiff when plaintiff is outside the zone of danger?


Yes. Defendant can be liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress even if plaintiff is not within the “zone of danger.” The judgment of the trial court is reversed.


In order to limit the otherwise potentially infinite liability which would follow every negligent act, the law of torts holds defendant amenable only for injuries to others which to defendant at the time were reasonably foreseeable. In this case, prime concern is the foreseeability of the risk. Such reasonable foreseeability does not turn on whether the particular plaintiff as an individual would have in actuality foreseen the exact accident and loss. The Court explained that the determination should be on a case-to-case basis by analyzing the following factors to decide what the ordinary man under such circumstances should reasonably have foreseen:

(1) Whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who was a distance away from it.

(2) Whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence.

(3) Whether plaintiff and the victim were closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.

In this case, all the above factors are present. As the mother of the victim, she is reasonably expected to be present near the scene of the accident and to suffer tremendous emotional trauma

Courts in the past had adopted the zone of danger doctrine, but this Court stated that applying the zone of danger doctrine was created with respect to those exposed to physical injury. The Court extended the doctrine to encompass those exposed to emotional injury.

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