The law rarely recognizes claims for emotional distress or “mere fright or anxiety, disappointment, or regret,” absent the presence of other cognizable damages – usually some type of physical manifestation of injury – but there are some instances when the emotional trauma is so naturally intolerable that the law will excuse potential evidentiary uncertainties and provide remedies for relief.
This recent case out of North Carolina is a heartbreaking example of when it’s appropriate for the law to allow a remedy for loss.
As Heath Hamacher with Lawyer’s Weekly reports, a woman’s estate settled claims for $1.35 million after an employee at the woman’s retirement community struck her with a golf cart in the presence of the woman’s daughter, who was with her mother when the incident occurred and attempted to help her after the accident while her mother fought for her life in the crosswalk. Her mother later died in the hospital from the injuries. The daughter was there through it all.
In North Carolina, a plaintiff can hold a defendant liable for severely and sincerely felt emotional distress when such a response falls within a reasonably foreseeable range of responses to defendant’s conduct, even if no physical manifestation of the injury occurs. Sorrells v. M.Y.B. Hospitality Venturer, 334 N.C. 669, 435 S.E.2d 320 (1993). When the emotional distress the plaintiff feels arises out of her concern for another’s wellbeing, the courts instruct jurors to consider the plaintiff’s physical proximity to the incident, how close of a relationship she shared with the victim, and whether the plaintiff personally observed the defendant suffer the injury, among other factors all designed to guide jurors in their determination of whether the plaintiff’s response was reasonable in light of what happened. Johnson v. Ruark Obstetrics and Gynecology Associations, P.A., 327 N.C. 283, 395 S.E.2d 85 (1990).
The case mentioned above settled this week for more than a million dollars for a reason. It was a strong case – and one of the claims was for the negligent infliction of emotional distress that the woman’s daughter suffered, who continues her ongoing battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What the woman’s daughter endured encapsulates the precise situation when the law cannot expect a plaintiff to keep it together under those circumstances, even if the plaintiff did not personally suffer a physical injury. The plaintiff-daughter had a strong relationship with the injured (her mother), she was close enough to the accident to grasp the gravity of the harm and its terrifying nature, and she personally observed it all, even her mother’s subsequent attempts to fight for her life.
While no sum of money can replace what the woman’s estate and her daughter lost, it’s at least worthwhile knowing that civil law is strong enough to appreciate how difficult such an event can be for those left in its wake.