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Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress from a Personal Injury Accident

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

The direct victim of a car accident, trucking accident (i.e., “big-rig” accident), motorcycle accident, premises liability accident (e.g., slip and fall or trip and fall) or other personal injury accident has a cause of action against the at-fault party, and typically the theory of liability under which the victim pursues his/her claim is negligence. However, the indvidual who was physically injured in the accident is not the only person who can bring a claim against the negligent party. An individual holding a close relationship to the victim is also able to bring a claim against the at-fault party for emotional distress, subject to very strict requirements. The requirements of a claim for the negligent infliction of emotional distress are found in California Civil Jury Instructions 1621 and were established in one of the most important and influential California supreme court decisions in  the case of Dillon vs. Legg. In this case, a mother and daughter witnessed their son/brother die in a car accident. They suffered enormous emotional distress as a result. The CA supreme court found that they did have a cause of action against the at-fault party, and in so finding, overturned the prior law requiring the victims of emotional distress to be within what was known as the “zone of danger.”  Indeed, the court held that “a bystander who witnesses the negligent infliction of death or injury of another may recover for resulting emotional trauma even though he or she did not fear imminent physical harm.” (Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal.2d 728, 746—747 [69 Cal.Rptr. 72, 441 P.2d 912].)

The above-referenced jury instructions provides the following instruction for a plaintiff to bring a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress following a personal injury accident:

“[Name of plaintiff] claims that [he/she] suffered serious emotional distress as a result of perceiving [an injury to/the death of] [name of injury victim]. To establish this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of defendant] negligently caused [injury to/the death of] [name of injury victim];

2. That [name of plaintiff] was present at the scene of the injury when it occurred and was aware that [name of injury victim] was being injured;

3. That [name of plaintiff] suffered serious emotional distress; and

4. That [name of defendant]’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing [name of plaintiff]’s serious emotional distress.

Emotional distress includes suffering, anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, and shame. Serious emotional distress exists if an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to cope with it.”

As noted above, there must be a close relationship between the victim of the personal injury accident and the one claiming emotional distress. This is not a question of fact, but rather a question of law, and a finding of a close relationship is a prerequisite that must be satisfied before a plaintiff has standing to bring this claim against the negligent party.

If you have been the victim of an auto accident or other personal injury accident or witnessed a family member injured due to the neligence of someone else, contact our injury lawyer today for a free consultation.

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