Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in North Carolina
In Gardner v. Gardner the plaintiff mother brought suit against the defendant father who drove his truck into a bridge abutment. Their son was fatally injured in the wreck.
Plaintiff, who was several miles away from the site of the accident, was notified by telephone and went to the hospital. About five minutes after she arrived, she saw her son taken into the emergency room and watched emergency personnel attempt to resuscitate him. The boy was taken to a treatment room and she went to a private waiting room, where, after being advised periodically of his condition, she was later told that he had died. The parties to the action stipulated that the emotional distress she suffered as a result of these events was severe.
The Supreme Court held that severe emotional distress, as defined by Ruark, was not reasonably foreseeable. There was no allegation or forecast of evidence that defendant knew the plaintiff was likely to suffer an emotional disorder or a severe and disabling emotional or mental condition as a consequence of his negligence. Such knowledge is essential in order to hold that the emotional distress for which the plaintiff sought recovery was reasonably foreseeable. The Court also pointed out that the plaintiff was not physically present at the scene of the accident, did not observe the negligent act of the defendant or immediately experience the collision or witness the injuries to her son.
In Andersen v. Baccus, a husband sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress when his pregnant wife was injured in a car wreck, gave birth to a stillborn son the next day, and subsequently died from her injuries. Based on the reasoning in Sorrells and Gardner, the Supreme Court held that defendant was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law on the issue of foreseeability.
In Hickman By and Through Womble v. McKoin, the Supreme Court, synthesizing Gardner and Sorrells as applications of Ruark, stated that an allegation of a parent-child relationship is insufficient to establish reasonable foreseeability of emotional distress. Thus, the Court pointed out that since under Gardner and Sorrells the parent-child relationship was insufficient when the parent sued for emotional distress because of injury to a child, the same result followed when the child sued for injury to the parent.
In McAllister v. Ha, the plaintiffs alleged that the wife became pregnant and gave birth to a child that had sickle cell disease as a result of defendant's negligent failure to inform them of the results of certain blood tests administered to plaintiffs. The court held that the plaintiffs' allegations of the wife's fears regarding their child's health and her resultant sleeplessness, ''while sparse,'' were sufficient to state a claim.
Prior to Ruark, the courts had allowed recovery for certain kinds of negligence where there is ''an especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress ... which serve[s] as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.'' Among these are the negligent delivery of messages, especially those announcing a death, the delivery of which the carrier should know would result in mental anguish for the recipient, and the negligent embalming, mishandling, or mutilation of corpses.
In Butz v. Holder, plaintiffs, the parents and a brother of a bicyclist killed by a negligent motorist, sued to recover for emotional distress after seeing the deceased covered in sleeping bag at scene of the accident.
The mother had sought psychological and psychiatric care for emotional distress suffered, and the father developed high blood pressure and was put on medication in addition to psychological treatment as a result of the accident. The Court of Appeals held that in light of the Supreme Court's decisions in Sorrells and Gardner, the parent's severe emotional distress was not a reasonably foreseeable result of the negligent conduct of the defendant. Moreover, the Court of Appeals suggested that the meaning of Gardner was that plaintiffs claiming negligent infliction of severe emotional distress must allege and forecast in their evidence that the defendant knew the plaintiff or plaintiffs were susceptible to emotional or mental disorders or other disabling emotional or mental conditions as a result of defendant's conduct. Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, which had granted summary judgment for the defendant.