In the state of California, personal injury victims have the right to pursue compensation for any economic and non-economic damages they incur. Under some circumstances, a person who witnessed a serious accident also has the right to seek compensation for the negligent infliction of emotional distress—even if he or she wasn’t physically injured.
Until 1968, courts typically dismissed emotional distress claims unless the plaintiff could prove the defendant’s conduct placed him or her in harm’s way. But this precedent was broken in the landmark case Dillon v. Legg, which was decided in the California Supreme Court.
What Happened in Dillon v. Legg?
Dillon v. Legg was a seminal case in the field of tort law. After Margery M. Dillon witnessed the car accident that killed her infant child, she sued David Luther Legg, the negligent driver, for emotional distress. The accident occurred in a residential neighborhood in Sacramento, near where the Dillons lived. Margery’s other child was with her and also witnessed the traumatic incident and subsequent death of her baby sibling.
At the time, there was a precedent in place that allowed only witnesses who were in physical danger when the accident happened to recover compensation for emotional distress. As a result, the trial court dismissed Dillon’s case.
The case proceeded to the California Supreme Court, and the final ruling established a framework for awarding damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress to a plaintiff who witnessed the injury or death of a loved one, even if the plaintiff wasn’t put in physical danger.
The Three-Pronged Test for Awarding Emotional Distress Damages
The court devised a three-pronged test that all emotional distress claims would have to pass to warrant an award of damages. Bystanders may only pursue compensation for the trauma they experienced from witnessing an accident if all of the following are true:
- They were physically present at the scene when the cause of action occurred;
- They “contemporaneously observed” the cause of action, and they were aware of the potential for injury or death as it was happening; and
- There existed a close relationship between themselves and the victim who was actually injured or died in the accident.
The court applied this test to Dillon’s case and reasoned that she did in fact have grounds on which to sue for emotional distress. She had been near the scene of the accident; she had witnessed the event that caused the fatal injuries; and as the mother of the deceased, she had a close relationship to the victim.
What Happened After Dillon v. Legg?
In the decades since the court’s ruling on Dillon v. Legg, several cases have further defined the precedent that it set. One of the most notable cases, Thing v. La Chusa, established how close the claimant had to be to the scene to have grounds for an emotional distress claim.
Decided in 1989, this case was between Maria Thing and James V. La Chusa. On December 8, 1980, Thing’s minor son was struck by a vehicle driven by La Chusa. Although Thing was nearby when the accident occurred, she did not see nor hear the collision.
When her daughter told her what had happened, she rushed to the scene. Thing found her bloodied and unconscious son lying in the roadway. She sued La Chusa for emotional distress.
The trial court ruled that the plaintiff was not entitled to damages because she did not actually witness the accident. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment dismissing her claim, which La Chusa then appealed to the California Supreme Court. Thing did not end up recovering compensation for her emotional distress.
The court upheld the precedent established in Dillon v. Legg. Since Thing did not actually witness the accident and therefore was not aware that it was causing injury to her son, she was not entitled to compensation for bystander distress.
When Can I Pursue Compensation for Emotional Distress?
Although witnessing virtually any kind of accident or physical altercation can be traumatizing, you will likely only be entitled to compensation for bystander distress if you can prove the three critical elements mentioned above. In other words, you must be more than just a disinterested witness to obtain a financial recovery for the negligent infliction of emotional distress.
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Your Injuries Are Personal to Me
If you were hurt in a preventable accident or you suffered emotional distress after witnessing the death or serious injury of a loved one, contact the Law Office of Michael D. Waks. Michael Waks has recovered numerous six- and seven-figure settlements and verdicts on behalf of injured parties and their families.
He has a track record of success helping clients pursue compensation for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. With an in-depth knowledge of the case law and statutes pertaining to these claims, Michael can determine if you might be entitled to emotional distress damages and the most strategic way to approach the proceedings.
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