Citation. 48 Cal. 3d 644 | 771 P.2d 814 | 257 Cal. Rptr. 865
Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff’s son was injured in a car accident, but plaintiff did not witness the accident.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Foreseeability of the injury alone was not a meaningful restriction on the scope of an action for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Plaintiff is the mother of the injured. Plaintiff’s son was injured in an car accident by defendant, but plaintiff did not witness the accident when it happened. The kid fell unconscious, but when plaintiff rushed to the scene and saw her son lying in blood, she thought he was dead and she suffered severe emotional harm. However, the kid was only injured and fell unconscious. Plaintiff sued defendant for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Can a mother who did not witness an accident that injured her child recover damages from the negligent driver for negligent infliction of emotional distress?
Yes. The Supreme Court of California reversed the lower appellant court decision. The Court held that in the absence of physical injury or impact to the plaintiff personally, damages for NIED would be recoverable only if the plaintiff: (1) was closely related to the injury victim, (2) was present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurs and was then aware that it was causing injury to the victim and, (3) as a result suffered emotional distress beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested witness.
Justice Mosk disagrees with the majority opinion on the grounds that the majority callously disregarded stare decisis unwarrantedly. He believes the majority opinion over generalized scholar criticism and its overruling of the Dillion precedent is unsupported.
The majority opinion points out that the main issue in this case should be whether the guidelines enunciated by this court in Dillon v. Legg (1968) are adequate, or if they should be refined to create greater certainty in this area of the law.
The majority states that Dillon’s progeny have created ever widening circles of liability by allowing plaintiffs to recover without physical injury based on grounds that a duty was owed to them solely because it was foreseeable that they would suffer that distress on learning of injury to a close relative. However, the expectation of the Dillon majority that the parameters of the tort would be further defined in future cases has not been fulfilled. The Dillon court abandoned the zone of danger doctrine in hope of creating more developed standards and tests in future cases while still avoiding infinite liabilities imposed on defendants, but its subsequent decisions did the contrary and created more uncertainty and inconsistent rulings instead. The majority opinion argues that it is clear that foreseeability of the injury alone is not a useful guideline or a meaningful restriction on the scope of the NIED action.
Emotional distress is an intangible condition and happens regardless of the cause of the loved one’s illness, injury, or death. The Court thus concludes that the societal benefits of certainty in the law, as well as traditional concepts of tort law, dictate limitation of bystander recovery of damages for emotional distress. In the absence of physical injury or impact to the plaintiff himself, damages for emotional distress should be recoverable only if the plaintiff: (1) is closely related to the injury victim, (2) is present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurs and is then aware that it is causing injury to the victim and, (3) as a result suffers emotional distress beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested witness.
In this case, plaintiff was not present at the scene of the accident and did not know about her son’s degree of injury. She could not, therefore, establish a right to recover for the emotional distress she suffered when she subsequently learned of the accident and observed its consequences. The order granting summary judgment was proper.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed.