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Burgess v. Superior Court

Citation. >Burgess v. Superior Court, 831 P.2d 1197, 2 Cal. 4th 1064, 9 Cal. Rptr. 2d 615, 92 Cal. Daily Op. Service 6096, 92 Daily Journal DAR 9608
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Brief Fact Summary.

A mother sues her private physician when she suffered extreme emotional distress after learning her new born baby suffered permanent brain and nervous system injuries.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A plaintiff may recover money damages for a claim of negligently inflicted emotional distress from a defendant physician, who is in a doctor-patient relationship with plaintiff during the delivery, if her child is severely injured during the delivery because plaintiff is directly affected by the physician’s negligent acts.


Burgess (Plaintiff) gave birth to her son, Joseph, by C-Section. Plaintiff was later informed that Joseph suffered from permanent brain and nervous system damage due to being deprived of oxygen. Plaintiff was emotionally distress after finding out about Joseph’s condition. Plaintiff sued Mr. Gupta (Defendant) the obstetrician who delivered Joseph claiming negligently inflicted emotional distress. Defendant asserted that Plaintiff did not meet the requirements for recovery of money damages for the emotional harm.


Whether a plaintiff may recover money damages for a claim of negligently inflicted emotional distress when the defendant physician entered a doctor-patient relationship with plaintiff during the labor and delivery of her child, who suffered severe injuries during the delivery. 


Yes. In medical negligence cases involving families, there are two ways plaintiffs may recover, the “bystander†theory and the “direct victim†theory. Defendant does not dispute that he owed a duty of care to Plaintiff because of the doctor-patient relationship. Defendant argues the scope of that duty did not extend to any injury Joseph suffered during delivery. However, the doctor-patient relationship did, in fact, extend to Joseph because the purpose of the Defendant’s care was to deliver Joseph and provide a standard of care that avoided any injury to Plaintiff and Joseph. Further, there is a profound emotional relationship between a mother and her fetus in that a mother’s emotional well-being and the health of the child are linked. Thus, the negligent acts during Joseph’s delivery, which resulted in his injuries, directly affected Plaintiff, caused her to suffer severe emotional distress, and directly breached a duty owed to Plaintiff.


The courts use factors to determine if the familial relationship gives a plaintiff standing to bring forth a claim of negligently infliction of emotional distress under the bystander theory or direct victim theory.

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