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Bystander Claims for Emotional Distress in California

What is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress?

In California — as in many other states — a plaintiff who has suffered emotional distress due to a defendant’s negligence may be able to recover by way of a negligent infliction of emotional distress (or NIED) claim or lawsuit. This claim is pretty much what its name suggests — emotional distress has been inflicted upon one person due to another person’s negligence. The basic reasoning behind this type of claim is that people generally have an obligation to exercise reasonable care not to inflict emotional distress upon other people.

If we think about it, however, people tend to mistakenly or negligently cause emotional distress to one another on a pretty regular basis — it seems, unfortunately, to be a fact of life. States like California that recognize NIED claims usually restrict these claims to very specific types of situations and fact patterns. If a defendant negligently causes emotional distress to a plaintiff in one of these situations, then a claim or lawsuit can be brought against that defendant for the resulting damages suffered by the plaintiff.

What is a Bystander Claim for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress?

We all understand that suffering a serious personal injury is likely to include a significant component of emotional distress to the person who is injured, but it can also be emotionally disturbing to witness another person being injured. This is so well-recognized that we now frequently hear the caution that, “Some viewers may find this video disturbing. . .,” when a news report is about to show images of a person sustaining an injury or experiencing violence. This is the idea behind a “bystander” negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.

Imagine, for example, a mother sitting on the front porch of her home and watching her son walking down their neighborhood sidewalk toward her. A drunk driver passing nearby loses control of his vehicle, striking and injuring the son. The mother who witnesses this immediately experiences severe emotional distress, having seen her son struck by a motor vehicle and now injured or perhaps even dead. The emotional distress she suffers in this moment is obviously extreme, and it can be described with words like anxiety, anguish, fear, shock, grief, etc.

The emotional distress suffered by the mother in this situation — not the person directly injured, but rather the person witnessing the injury happen — is the basis for a bystander claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

What are the Requirements and Limits on Bystander Claims?

The idea behind bystander claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress has been around for a long while, but in California, there was one important ruling by the California Supreme Court that has defined and limited these types of claims. This was the case of Dillon v. Legg, which the state supreme court ruled upon in 1968.

Previously, bystander claims required that the person bringing the claim had to themselves had been within a “zone of danger” when the injury to another person took place. That is, the potential claimant must themselves have been injured by the incident or have been directly threatened with injury from the incident. In our example above, the mother sitting on her front porch who sees her son struck some distance away would not have been within this “zone of danger” — she was not herself at risk of injury.

In Dillon v. Legg, the relevant claim was brought by a mother who witnessed a motor vehicle accident in which her infant daughter was a passenger in one of the vehicles. Since the mother was not involved in the accident, her claim was initially rejected, since she wasn’t in the “zone of danger.” The Supreme Court decided that a direct risk of injury to the bystander claimant was irrelevant – the whole basis for this type of claim being over emotional distress for seeing someone else be injured — and that it was only necessary that the risk of emotional distress be “foreseeable” given the circumstances.

The Court determined in Dillon v. Legg that there are only three relevant factors for this type of claim:

  • Whether the plaintiff was near the scene of the accident. That is, whether they were close enough to be able to understand what was happening to the victim.
  • Whether the emotional shock to the plaintiff occurred at the same time as the accident and as they witnessed it. Hearing about the injury later from someone else would not be sufficient.
  • Whether the plaintiff and the injury victim had a close relationship.

Dillon v. Legg was such a significant ruling in California with respect to bystander claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress that these types of claims and cases have since been routinely referred to as “Dillon” claims or “Dillon-Legg” claims.

Other subsequent cases in California have further limited these types of claims:

  • Thing v. LaChusa (1989) limited the “close relationship” to parents, children, siblings, grandparents, or relatives residing in the same household.
  • Elden v. Sheldon (1988) also limited the “close relationship” by excluding cohabiting people who were unmarried.
  • Ra v. Superior Court (1987) more specifically defined and shortened the timing within which the plaintiff perceived the injury to their relative. In this case, the plaintiff heard an accident happening, but did not understand until a short time later that a relative was involved in the incident. The court ruled that a bystander claim could not be brought “if the missing knowledge is acquired (even just) moments later.”

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Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer

Thanks for reading our discussion of bystander claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress in California. My name is Ed Smith — I have been a Sacramento personal injury lawyer for more than 38 years. As a legal advocate with many years of experience representing people who have been injured in traffic accidents and many other types of incidents, I encourage you to reach out to us if you or a member of your family has been injured as the result of the actions of a negligent person. To reach a skilled injury attorney at our office for free, friendly advice, please call us at (916) 921-6400 or toll-free at (800) 404-5400. You can also reach us with our online contact form.

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