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Dillon v. Legg

Supreme Court of California

June 21, 1968

Sac. No. 7816


 [*730]   [**914]   [***74]  That the courts should allow recovery to a mother who suffers emotional trauma and physical injury from witnessing the infliction of death or injury to her child for which the tortfeasor is liable in negligence would appear to be a compelling proposition. As Prosser points out, "All ordinary human feelings are in favor of her [the mother's] action against the negligent defendant. If a duty to her requires that she herself be in some recognizable danger,  [****2]  then it has properly been said that when a child is endangered, it is not beyond contemplation that its mother will be somewhere in the vicinity, and will suffer serious shock." (Prosser, Law of Torts (3d ed. 1964) p. 353.)

Nevertheless, past American decisions have barred the mother's recovery. Refusing the mother the right to take her case to the jury, these courts ground their position on an alleged absence of a required "duty" of due care of the tortfeasor to the mother. Duty, in turn, they state, must express public policy; the imposition of duty here would work disaster because it would invite fraudulent claims and it would involve the courts in the hopeless task of defining the extent of the tortfeasor's liability. In substance, they say, definition of liability being impossible, denial of liability is the only realistic alternative.

We have concluded that neither of the feared dangers  [*731]  excuses the frustration of the natural justice upon which the mother's claim rests. We shall point out that in the past we have rejected the argument that we should deny recovery upon a legitimate claim because other fraudulent ones may be urged. We shall further explain that [****3]  the alleged inability to fix definitions for recovery on the different facts of future cases does not justify the denial of recovery on the specific facts of the instant case; in any event, proper guidelines can indicate the extent of liability for such future cases.

In the instant case plaintiff's 1 first cause of action alleged that on or about September 27, 1964, defendant drove his automobile in a southerly direction on Bluegrass Road near its intersection with Clover Lane in the County of Sacramento, and at that time plaintiff's infant daughter, Erin Lee Dillon, lawfully crossed Bluegrass Road. The complaint further alleged that defendant's negligent operation of his vehicle caused it to "collide with the deceased Erin Lee Dillon resulting in injuries to decedent which proximately resulted in her death." (Complaint, p. 3.) Plaintiff, as the mother of the decedent, brought an action for compensation for the loss.

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68 Cal. 2d 728 *; 441 P.2d 912 **; 69 Cal. Rptr. 72 ***; 1968 Cal. LEXIS 201 ****; 29 A.L.R.3d 1316

MARGERY M. DILLON et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. DAVID LUTHER LEGG, Defendant and Respondent

Prior History:  [****1]  APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County. Robert W. Cole, Judge.

Action to recover for damages suffered by mother for emotional trauma and physical injury from witnessing the infliction of death or injury to her child due to the negligence of tortfeasor.

Disposition: Reversed. Judgment for defendant reversed.


shock, foreseeability, courts, cases, physical injury, witnessing, law of torts, own safety, fright, zone of danger, emotional, emotional trauma, third person, feared, guidelines, damages, fraudulent claim, physical impact, future cases, tortfeasor, peril, cause of action, fraudulent, infliction, proximate, deny recovery, instant case, trial court, principles, suffering

Torts, Elements, Duty, General Overview, Types of Losses, Pain & Suffering, Types of Premises, Recreational Facilities, Sports Facilities, Emotional Distress, Negligence, Governments, Courts, Authority to Adjudicate, Causation, Family Law, Family Relationships & Torts, Physical Injuries, Intentional Torts, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Foreseeability of Harm, Defamation