DUTY LIMITED BY KIND OF HARM
Historically, tort law provided compensation for a victim's mental distress only when it followed physical injury. Recovery for this emotional upset, parasitic to the plaintiff's claim for physical harm, is typically known as “pain and suffering.” Now, in certain limited circumstances, negligently inflicted mental distress that does not follow from physical harm is recognized as a basis for recovery. Traditionally, as a prerequisite to recovery for mental distress, the defendant's negligence must have caused some form of physical impact on the plaintiff's person. Most states today only require that the plaintiff have been in risk of physical impact, sometimes referred to as being within the “zone of impact” or the “zone of danger.” Most states also require that the victim's mental distress be sufficiently severe to cause physical symptoms of the distress. Some jurisdictions have flirted with a much broader recovery for pure emotional distress - dispensing with a requirement of physical manifestations and broadly defining the class of proper plaintiffs.
A separate development has been the gradual recognition of bystander recovery for negligently inflicted emotional distress. A majority of states allow a bystander to recover only if the bystander is also within the zone of physical risk. A significant minority of states now allow recovery for bystanders who are not in risk of physical impact if they (1) are physically near the accident; (2) have contemporaneous sensory perception of the accident; and (3) are closely related to the victim. Most of the states following this approach also continue to require that the bystander-plaintiff suffer some physical manifestation of her distress.
[B] Direct Actions
 The Impact Rule
A small minority of states retain the once generally held requirement that the victim must suffer physical contact by the defendant's negligence to recover successfully for mental distress. The impact need not itself cause physical injury. The few jurisdictions that continue to require impact on the plaintiff reason that the rule still reflects the clearest and most logical line for determining when mental distress should be compensated. The vast majority of jurisdictions, however, have abandoned the impact requirement, reasoning that its artificiality creates an incentive for overly creative pleading and excessive litigation as plaintiffs try to fashion new exceptions to the impact requirement.
 Risk of Impact Rule
A clear majority of American states allow recovery for mental distress if the plaintiff was at risk of physical impact and suffered a physical manifestation of the distress. This so-called “zone of danger” requirement allows the plaintiff to recover for mental distress caused by near misses. The majority rule continues to require physical manifestations of the mental distress. Classically this physical ailment was characterized as fright, although the term is no longer required. While a heart attack or miscarriage is clearly adequate, such severe physical manifestations are not required, and assertions of stomach trouble have sufficed.
 Special Cases
In limited situations, courts have been willing to relax the limitations on recovery for negligently inflicted emotional distress. For example, a plaintiff can readily recover for mental distress occasioned by the negligent handling of a close relative's corpse, or the erroneous notification of a close relative's death, situations lacking either impact or a threat of physical danger to the plaintiff.
 Broadest Direct Recovery
A few jurisdictions moved toward permitting a broader recovery for negligently inflicted emotional distress, employing general notions of foreseeability. In the place of restrictions such as impact or presence in the danger zone, these states permit recovery for mental distress to all foreseeable plaintiffs. Others have something of a middle ground, where a plaintiff suffering mental distress is owed a duty provided she can show the existence of a pre-existing duty. [See Marlene F. v. Affiliated Psychiatric Medical Clinic, 770 P.2d 278 (Cal. 1989).]
 Recovery for Fear of Future Physical Harm
A particularly challenging issue receiving increasing attention is whether emotional distress damages should be recovered for the fear of future physical harm. The problem often arises in the toxic tort or defective product context. Most courts are wary of permitting recovery due to the difficulty of measuring damages, potentially crushing liability, and serious proof problems such as the possibility of multiple causes.
[C] Bystander Actions
Recovery for emotional distress suffered from the defendant's negligently inflicted harm to another has been particularly controversial. Courts have asserted various tests in an attempt to strike a balance between allowing the most foreseeable plaintiffs to recover for emotional distress without overly burdening negligent defendants.
 Zone of Danger
Courts have used the near-impact rule to compensate a bystander for the emotional trauma of witnessing a serious injury to a close relative. Under the zone-of-danger rule, the plaintiff can recover for emotional harm suffered from witnessing negligently inflicted harm causing death or serious injury to another (generally a close relative) when she is in a position to fear for her own safety.
 Dillon v. Legg: Minority Rule
A large minority of states have extended potential recovery to bystanders of an accident even though they were not at physical risk themselves. The Dillon v. Legg decision [441 P.2d 912 (Cal. 1968)], which led the movement away from the zone-of-danger test, articulated three factors needed to establish a duty to the plaintiff: (1) whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident . . . ; (2) whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident . . . ; (3) whether plaintiff and the victim were closely related. These “factors” have become subject to claims of arbitrariness, however, as courts have come to differing conclusions under similar fact patterns. Although courts disagree about the proper scope of recovery, there is a general concern that liability to bystanders flowing from a negligent act will create liability disproportionate to the defendant's fault. This concern has prompted some courts to discourage expansive findings of foreseeability. Indeed, there has been some recent movement toward narrowing bystander recovery even on the limited Dillon approach. [See, e.g., Thing v. LaChusa, 771 P.2d 814 (Cal. 1989), narrowing the reach of Dillon.]
 Restatement Position
The Restatement endorses liability under § 436 if the plaintiff's mental distress results from the risk of impact, or “shock or fright at harm or peril to a member of his immediate family occurring in his presence,” and the plaintiff is in the zone of danger. Further, Restatement § 436A requires that the plaintiff suffer “bodily harm or other compensable damage.”
These cases are quite controversial because the plaintiffs are contending, in essence, that the birth of a child is a compensable harm. The defendant's negligence has not rendered a healthy child unhealthy. Had there been no fault, the child would not have been born at all. The terminology courts and commentators use in this area varies although most categorize the claims as follows: the parents' action for the negligently caused birth of a healthy child is a “wrongful conception” (or “wrongful pregnancy”) claim; the parents' claim for damages due to the negligently caused birth of an unhealthy child is a “wrongful birth” claim; and the child's own legal claim is one for “wrongful life.” Each of these will be examined in turn.
[B] Wrongful Conception
Virtually all courts confronted with a “wrongful conception” claim have permitted some recovery, recognizing that the defendant's breach of the standard of care has led to foreseeable harm. Without much controversy, plaintiffs are typically permitted to recover damages directly associated with the pregnancy and the birth. Some courts also permit the recovery of emotional distress damages too. Most courts have refused to permit the parents to recover the cost of raising the child to majority.
When recovery is permitted, some courts require an offset based on the “benefit rule” embodied in the Restatement [§ 920], under which the jury is asked to reduce the damage award by the emotional gains of having a healthy child. Another torts damages principle that defendants have asserted in wrongful conception cases (as well as in wrongful birth cases discussed below) is the requirement that a plaintiff mitigate damages. Defendants have contended that the plaintiffs' failure to terminate the unwanted pregnancy or to put the child up for adoption constitutes a failure to mitigate damages. Courts, however, have been generally unwilling, in light of the highly personal nature of the decision involved, to permit jury consideration of the impact of the plaintiffs' decision to go to term and to keep the child.
[C] Wrongful Birth
In wrongful birth actions, the plaintiffs are suing because the defendants' negligence deprived them of their ability to make an informed decision about whether to procreate, or whether to carry a potentially impaired child to term. In many instances, the plaintiff must show that “but for” the defendant's negligent failure to diagnose the condition giving rise to the birth defect, the plaintiff would have learned of the potential danger and would have elected to terminate the pregnancy.
The major debate centers around what damages should be recoverable. Most jurisdictions have permitted the wrongful birth plaintiff to recover extraordinary expenses associated with the defect with which the child was born. Some have also permitted recovery of emotional distress damages. The “benefit rule” may apply in the wrongful birth context. Some courts require the jury to reduce the plaintiff's damage recovery by the emotional benefits of having the child. The jury may deem these benefits substantial or minor depending on the condition of the child.
[D] Wrongful Life
A wrongful life action is the action of the infant born in an impaired condition, claiming, in essence, that being born was the injury. The great majority of jurisdictions have refused to recognize such a claim. A central reason for the rejection of a wrongful life claim is the difficulty calculating damages. Courts have found it impossible to apply conventional tort damage principles, by which the injured plaintiff is to be returned to a pre-injury state, in the wrongful life context because the wrongful life plaintiff's pre-injury state would have been non-existence. A few courts have permitted limited wrongful life recovery, allowing the wrongful life plaintiff to recover the extraordinary expenses associated with the impairment. No jurisdiction currently permits the wrongful life plaintiff to recover for pain and suffering.
These claims deal with two kinds of compensable harm to certain family members arising from tortiously inflicted injury to another: loss of consortium and wrongful death. Loss of consortium and wrongful death are most appropriately viewed as a type of injury. As a duty issue, the debate focuses on who should be permitted to recover, as well as what should be recoverable.
[B] Loss of Consortium
Nearly all jurisdictions permit one spouse to recover against a person who seriously injures the other spouse, usually calling it as an action for “loss of consortium.” The concept of “consortium” gradually expanded to permit recovery for more than the economic loss of the of the injured spouse's household services; now the loss of consortium plantiff is permitted to recoup intangibles such as loss of companionship, comfort, and sexual services. Some jurisdictions, still a minority, permit children to recover for the tortious injury to a parent and parents to recover for tortious harm to a child. Courts expanding consortium rights have noted the inconsistency of permitting a spousal action while denying an action by parents or children.
[C] Wrongful Death
Every state has passed a statute that permits wrongful death recovery though the scope of that recovery varies state to state.
 Who May Recover
Under any wrongful death statute, the plaintiff is suing for loss suffered due to the tortiously inflicted death of a close relative. Because wrongful death is purely statutory, an action may be brought only by those permitted to do so pursuant to the jurisdiction's wrongful death statute. A surviving spouse, parents and children are typically permitted to bring an action. Some statutes exclude other possible dependents such as siblings or stepchildren who have not been legally adopted.
 Recoverable Damages
Initially nearly all wrongful death statutes limited wrongful death recovery to pecuniary (monetary) losses. Strictly interpreting the limitation to pecuniary losses led to minimal recovery for the death of the elderly, the young and those not working outside the home. Today, most jurisdictions permit designated dependents to recover lost support and other benefits arising from the tortious death.
 Proof Problems
Wrongful death recovery is never automatic, even by one clearly permitted to bring the action under a wrongful death statute. The plaintiff must prove with some degree of certainty the losses suffered from the tortious death. Calculating these damages can be extraordinarily challenging, such as when dealing with the death of a minor child.
The effect of the wrongful death plaintiff's negligence or that of the decedent may affect wrongful death recovery. In most jurisdictions, the action is treated as derivative of the underlying claim; thus, the deceased's fault affects the wrongful death heir's recovery.
[D] Survival Actions
A survival action is the continuation of the decedent's action against the tortfeasor. As such it does not give rise to new legal claims; it simply continues a pre-existing one. The action is brought by the administrator, executor or personal representative of the decedent's estate. As the continuation of the decedent's action, the representative can, in most jurisdictions, recover any damages that the decedent would have recovered if she had lived. Some jurisdictions limit what can be recovered in a survival action, however.
Virtually all jurisdictions permit both survival actions and wrongful death actions by statute. Where the tortious conduct contributes to the victim's death, often both actions are brought simultaneously. The survival action typically permits the estate to recover the decedent's medical expenses, lost wages and, perhaps her pain and suffering. The post-death losses are recoverable in the wrongful death action by the appropriate statutory heirs for the losses they suffer from the tortiously caused death.
Where a defendant's negligence causes physical injury from which the plaintiff suffers economic loss (such as lost wages) or causes property damage from which flows economic harm (such as lost profits), there is no duty debate about recovery for economic loss. But where the defendant's unreasonable conduct has caused solely economic loss without physical injury or property damage, the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions refuse to find a duty.
[B] Pure Economic Loss
Under the general rule, there is no negligence recovery by those suffering purely economic losses. Courts have suggested several reasons to justify the no-duty rule: a concern about potential liability out of proportion to fault; a difficulty in measuring damages; a lack of deterrence flowing from the imposition of liability due to the unpredictable nature of the harm; the notion that it is preferable for plaintiffs to self-insure to protect themselves from the limited losses they suffer than to require the defendant to insure against potentially vast damage claims; and there is a benefit to litigants and to the tort system to have clearly defined, bright-line rules. While the rule is largely followed, it has been criticized as capricious and outdated. And at least one jurisdiction has adopted a broader rule creating a duty to “particularly foreseeable plaintiffs” who suffer pure economic loss. [See People Express Airlines v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 495 A.2d 107 (N.J. 1985).]
[C] Liability of Negligent Information Suppliers
Much of the litigation in the economic loss arena has arisen in the context of negligent information suppliers, such as accountants. Notwithstanding strict limits on duty in the economic loss context generally, courts have recognized an exception where the plaintiff and defendant have a special relationship. Often this is evidenced by contract. The controversy in this economic loss context is the degree to which third parties harmed by the defendant's negligence are owed a duty. All courts recognize that duty in this context may extend beyond privity of contract. Yet there is great divergence beyond this point. Some courts enlarge duty beyond privity only minimally, while others support a far more expansive duty. Most courts have selected among three primary approaches: the narrowest, which extends a duty only to those who are virtually in privity with the defendant (“quasi-privity”); the middle approach, which extends a duty to those the defendant intended to influence [Restatement § 552]; and the broadest, which extends a duty to those who could be foreseeably injured.
[D] Attorney Liability
The debate about the degree that a duty should extend beyond the client has also arisen in the context of legal malpractice. Courts have been reticent in the attorney context to expand a duty beyond privity of contract.
In most jurisdictions the rule remains that “absent fraud or other bad faith an attorney is not liable for negligent conduct to nonclient third parties.” Some jurisdictions have permitted a limited expansion of the duty beyond clients in certain particularly compelling circumstances, such as where there has been a negligently drafted will. See Biakanja v. Irving, 320 P.2d 16 (Cal. 1958).