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Burgess v. Superior Court

Citation. 831 P.2d 1197 (1992)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The California Supreme Court allowed a mother to recover negligently inflicted emotional distress damages against her doctor for her child’s injuries who was injured during birth. 

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A plaintiff who has established a patient doctor relationship may recover monetary damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress if the doctor causes harm to the patient’s child during delivery of that child. 


Burgess (Plaintiff) gave birth to her son via cesarean section. Shortly after, she was told that her baby suffered both nervous system damage and brain damage because of oxygen deprivation. After receiving sedatives, Burgess woke up after the sedatives wore off and felt emotional distress. Burgess then brought a claim for negligently inflicted emotional distress against Gupta (Defendant) the doctor who delivered Burgess’ child. After Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was denied, Burgess appealed where the intermediate appellate court held the defendant caused negligent infliction of emotional distress. Gupta appeals the intermediate appellate court’s decision. 


When a patient enters into a doctor patient relationship where the doctor is to care for the patient and the patient’s future child during labor, can the pregnant mother sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress when the doctor injures the baby during labor? 


Yes. The California courts apply two theories for medical negligence regarding family relationships. First, the direct victim theory looks at the foreseeable risk of harm caused by the defendant’s (doctor’s) actions. The injured party is considered a “direct victim” of the conduct. Second, the bystander theory looks at the relationship between the plaintiff and the injured party and determines if there was a distinct relationship between the two parties. Here, the motherly relationship with her child is a deep emotional relationship. Thus, when the child was injured and the mother witnessed it, any negligent act causes harm to the mother as well.


The court focuses on the fact that the mother witnessed the injury of her child. However, the mother was sedated and arguably did not actually witness the injury. Furthermore, her distress did not come until hours after she woke up from her sedation. 

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