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Law School Case Brief

Burgess v. Superior Court - 2 Cal. 4th 1064, 9 Cal. Rptr. 2d 615, 831 P.2d 1197 (1992)


The negligent causing of emotional distress is not an independent tort, but the tort of negligence. The traditional elements of duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages apply. Whether a defendant owes a duty of care is a question of law. Its existence depends upon the foreseeability of the risk and a weighing of policy considerations for and against imposition of liability.


A mother filed a medical malpractice action against an obstetrician and a hospital after her child suffered permanent brain and nervous system damage, allegedly as a result of oxygen deprivation during the delivery. Defendants brought a motion for summary adjudication that the mother was not entitled to recover damages for emotional distress, since she did not contemporaneously observe the baby's injury as required for recovery in a "bystander" situation. The trial court granted defendants' motion. The Court of Appeal granted the mother's petition for a writ of mandate to vacate the trial court's order, concluding that the mother was a "direct victim" rather than a "bystander."


Did the trial court err when it applied the "bystander" limitations on liability and granted summary adjudication on the mother's emotional distress claim?




The court granted review and affirmed the appellate court's writ. The court held that the criteria for recovery by bystanders for negligent infliction of emotional distress was not controlling because doctor and hospital owed a preexisting physician-patient duty of care to petitioner. The negligence during delivery that caused injury to the fetus and resultant emotional anguish to respondent mother breached a duty owed directly to respondent because such distress was reasonably foreseeable. Lack of physical injury did not defeat petitioner's claim. The court further rejected the doctor's and the hospital's public policy arguments against a finding of liability. While the mother could not recover damages for loss of filial consortium, such limitation did not bar her from complete recovery for emotional distress damages arising from the negligent delivery.

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