Plaintiff sued Defendant for causing her shock and distress when Plaintiff saw Defendant’s vehicle strike and kill her son. The trial court denied Defendant’s demurrer. Defendant appealed.
There can be no recovery for physical injuries sustained by a plaintiff as a result of the shock of witnessing another’s danger who is out of the zone of danger or range of ordinary physical peril.
Mrs. Waube (Plaintiff) was looking out of the window of her house as her child crossed the highway when she witnessed Warrington’s (Defendant) vehicle strike and kill the child, causing Mrs. Plaintiff shock and distress. Subsequently, Plaintiff sued Defendant for damages related to injuries suffered by Mrs. Plaintiff. The trial court denied Defendant’s demurrer and he appealed.
Whether there can be recovery for physical injuries sustained by a plaintiff as a result of the shock of witnessing another’s danger who is out of the zone of danger or range of ordinary physical peril.
No. The trial court’s ruling is reversed and the case is remanded with directions to sustain Defendant’s denurrer.
Historically, a plaintiff was not entitled to recover damages for emotional injuries unless actual, physical impact to the plaintiff occurred. Thereafter, that rule was relaxed to allow recovery for emotional injuries suffered by a plaintiff who was in fear of personal injury, but was not actually impacted. The rule did not extend to allowing recovery due to fear of injury to property or another person. See Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co., 162 N.E. 99 (1928). Plaintiff asks the court to extend the rule to an occasion where a defendant’s negligent conduct to a child causes injury through fright and shock to the parent who witnessed the conduct. In Hambrook v. Stokes Bros., 1 K.B. 141 (1925), a runaway truck belonging to defendants struck and injured Hambrook’s child. The mother of the child was not personally injured by the truck, but sustained physical and emotional injuries due to the shock, and she eventually died as a result. There, the court incorrectly viewed the matter from a proximate cause stance rather than a duty owed to plaintiff. The court wrongly held that there should be no distinction between the shock sustained by a mother as a result of fear for her own safety, and shock sustained by reason of injury to her child. Essentially, the defendant’s duty there was to use ordinary care to avoid physical injury to those who would be put in immediate peril as a result of his negligent actions. Equally, it would be unwise to unequivocally hold in this case that an individual outside the area of physical danger shall have a legally protected right to be free from emotional distress, which results in physical impairment, after witnessing injury to another, even a close family member. Such a holding is out of proportion to the culpability of the negligent person, would put an unreasonable burden on users of the highway, open the way to fraudulent claims, and enter a field that has no sensible or just stopping point.