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Thing v. La Chusa

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiff, Maria Thing’s (Plaintiff) son was struck by an automobile and injured. Plaintiff did not witness the accident, but arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. Plaintiff sued the Defendant, James La Chusa (Defendant), for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The California Supreme Court has ruled that a plaintiff must be present when an injury occurs and be closely related to the injured party to recover damages for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

    Facts. On December 8, 1980, John Thing, a minor, was struck by an automobile operated by the Defendant. The Plaintiff, John Thing’s mother was nearby, but neither saw nor heard the accident. Plaintiff’s daughter informed her of the injury to her son. Plaintiff rushed to the scene, where she found her son bloody and unconscious. Plaintiff sued the Defendant, alleging she suffered great emotional disturbance, shock and injury to her nervous system as a result of the emotional stress she suffered. Plaintiff also alleged that these injuries were proximately caused by the Defendant’s negligence. The court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment ruling as a matter of law that Plaintiff could not establish a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress because she did not contemporaneously and sensorily perceive the accident. The Court of Appeals overruled the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

    Issue. Did the Court of Appeal correctly hold that a mother who did not witness a car accident in which her son was injured could recover damages for the emotional distress she suffered when she arrived at the accident scene?

    Held. No. The Judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed.
    * Originally in California, the right to recovery for emotional distress was allowed only if the victim himself was injured or if the plaintiff was in the “zone of danger” of the accident. This was overruled in Dillon, [Dillon v. Legg, 68 Cal.2d 728, 69 Cal.Rptr. 72, 441 F.2d 912 (1968)] when the court established a test based on whether the defendant should have reasonably foreseen the injury to plaintiff. This test takes into account whether the plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident, if the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon the plaintiff from the sensory observance of the accident and if the plaintiff and victim were closely related.
    * Future cases went on to distinguish between direct victim cases and bystander cases, with direct victims being individuals whose emotional distress is reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the conduct of the defendant. The courts have had difficulty applying the Dillon and direct victim standards, however.
    * This court concludes that a clear-cut rule would be more effective in this area. Therefore a plaintiff may recover damages for emotional distress caused by observing the negligently inflicted injury of a third person only if: (1) the plaintiff is closely related to the victim; (2) the plaintiff is present at the scene at the time the injury occurs and is then aware of the injury being caused to the victim; (3) as a result suffers serious emotional distress beyond which would be expected of a disinterested witness. In the present case, Plaintiff was not present at the scene of the accident, therefore, she cannot establish a right to recover for her emotional distress.
    Concurrence. Chief Justice Lucas and Justices Panelli and Arguelles concur. Justice Kaufman concurred, but thought that Dillon should be overruled and liability confined to those in the zone of danger and put in fear of their own safety.

    Discussion. A similar cause of action, intentional infliction of emotional distress, is punitive in nature rather than negligent infliction of emotional distress, which is compensatory.


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