As mentioned in another informative article, there are multiple damages that may be available to a plaintiff and/or an immediate family member of an injured plaintiff. Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) is a claim that an immediate family member of an injured plaintiff may bring against a defendant. Usually, for a successful NIED claim brought by an immediate family member, the plaintiff must have been at the scene of the accident or in a proximity to the family member in a victimized state immediately after the accident. To successfully prove a NIED claim in North Carolina, the plaintiff or the injured person must prove the following elements:
- The defendant acted or behaved in a negligent manner;
- It was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s behavior would cause severe emotional distress to the plaintiff; and
- The defendant’s conduct did cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress.
To prove negligent behavior, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care. In most circumstances, citizens owe fellow citizens a duty of reasonable care. The plaintiff must then show that the defendant breached the duty of care that he owed to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must show that the defendant did not exercise his duty of reasonable care towards the plaintiff. Next, the plaintiff must prove that the breach was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. To prove actual cause, the plaintiff must be able to show that had it not been for the defendant’s actions which constituted the breach, the plaintiff would not have sustained any injuries. In addition to actual cause, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Proximate cause deals with foreseeability, thus the plaintiff must prove that the plaintiff’s injuries were a foreseeable consequence from the defendant’s actions. Lastly, the plaintiff must show that he has actual injuries because of the defendant’s negligence.
In North Carolina, severe emotional distress requires more than the normal level of fear, regret and disappointment. The plaintiff must be able to prove that they suffer from a severe and disabling emotional disorder such as chronic depression, anxiety, neurosis, psychosis and phobia. Generally, the mental disorder or condition should be diagnosed by a physician. If the emotional disorder is temporary in nature, it is likely that it will be harder for the plaintiff to prove severe emotional distress.
When a plaintiff sues for NIED for injuries to another person, it is generally more difficult to prove. If there are intervening events and causes that occur between the defendant’s actions and the injury, it will be difficult to prove that the distress was immediate and foreseeable to the defendant. Often loved ones arrive to an accident scene minutes after an accident has occurred, or arrive to the hospital while their loved one is being resuscitated, but these types of incidents generally do not meet the elements of NIED since the distress was not immediate.
In Gardner v. Gardner, a mother sued the father of her child for negligent infliction of emotional distress after the father drove his vehicle containing the child into a bridge abutment, killing the child. 435 S.E.2d 324, 326 (1993). The trial court granted the father’s motion for summary judgement, but on appeal the appellate court reversed and remanded the mother’s case. Id. The father appealed and ultimately the Supreme Court held that the mother’s severe emotional distress was not reasonably foreseeable and its occurrence was too remote from the father’s negligent act of driving the vehicle into the bridge abutment. Id.
The question that the Supreme Court of North Carolina addressed in this case is whether a mother who is not present at the scene of a car accident in which her child is injured may recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when she suffers mental anguish upon being informed of the accident, rushing to the hospital where she observes resuscitative efforts by emergency personnel on her child, and later being informed that her child has died. Id. at 325-26.
As the administratrix of her son’s estate, the mother sued the defendant for the wrongful death of her son, and in her individual capacity for negligent infliction of emotional distress. She alleged that she suffered severe emotional distress and that she had to receive professional counseling. She further alleged that the injury to her son and her severe emotional distress was foreseeable to the defendant at the time that he drove his vehicle into the bridge abutment. Id. at 326.
Although at trial, the plaintiff’s NIED claim was dismissed because she was not at the scene of the accident, nor was she near the accident, the appellate court determined that the mother’s emotional distress was foreseeable. Id. The court stated:
In common experience, a parent who sees its mortally injured child soon after an accident, albeit at another place, perceives the danger to the child's life, and experiences those agonizing hours preceding the awful message of death may be at no less risk of suffering a similar degree of emotional distress than ... a parent who is actually exposed to the scene of the accident.
The Court referenced how there are factors established in previous case law to determine whether a plaintiff’s injuries are foreseeable to a defendant. Id. at 327. The factors are: 1) the plaintiff’s proximity to the negligent act, 2) the relationship between the plaintiff and the other person for whose welfare the plaintiff is concerned, and 3) whether the plaintiff personally observed the negligent act. Id. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that the trial court properly granted summary judgement to the defendant on the NIED issue. Id. Thus, the mother was not able to recover against the defendant for her independent claim of NIED. Id. at 328.
This case demonstrates the factors that North Carolina courts use when determining if a close family member may be successful when asserting a claim of NIED when they are not at the accident scene or near where the accident occurred. Even though the mother in this case arrived to the hospital as the son was being transported in and resuscitated, she was still not entitled to recover for NIED because it was not foreseeable to the defendant that she would suffer from severe emotional distress at the time of the accident.
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