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A plaintiff seeking to recover damages from a negligent defendant must allege a causal connection between the negligence and the plaintiff's injury.
Petitioners Donald Paul Christensen et al., were relatives and representatives of the decedents. They brought a class action against Pasadena Crematorium of Altadena et al., mortuaries, crematoria, and a biology supply company, for mistreatment of the decedents' remains. The complaint alleged that respondents desecrated the remains, removed valuables from the decedents, commingled their ashes with other remains, and, without authorization, sold body parts and organs to defendant biological supply company. The individual plaintiffs who sought to represent the class were persons within the class who had the right and responsibility for handling, and the right to custody and possession of their decedents' remains. They also possessed or might acquire the right under Health & Saf. Code, § 7100 to control disposition of the remains, and/or contracted for defendants' services, paid for the services, or represented the estates of persons who did. The superior court ruled that only those plaintiffs who were entitled by § 7100 to control the disposition of the decedents' remains as of the date of the decedents' death, or who actually contracted for disposition, had standing to assert the claims set forth in the complaint. Plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of mandate against respondent Superior Court of Los Angeles County in California, seeking modification of the pretrial order and seeking to compel respondent to modify its order to recognize the standing of additional plaintiffs- close family members and certain friends of the decedents. The court of appeal held that those family members could recover damages for the emotional distress they suffered if the remains were negligently or intentionally mishandled. The court further held that if the mishandling was intentional, all family members and close friends of the deceased could do so. Petitioner class members sought review of the order.
Could persons other than those who contract for the services of mortuaries and crematoria recover damages for emotional distress?
The Supreme Court modified the judgment of the appellate court. The court ruled that the class of persons who could recover for emotional distress negligently caused by defendants, was not limited to those who had the statutory right to control disposition of the remains and those who contracted for disposition. However, it held the class was not as expansive as that identified by the court of appeal. The court held that, in all recovery for negligence, the potential plaintiff must be a person to whom the defendant owed a duty recognized by the law. Thus, in this context, the duty was owed only to those close family members who were aware that funeral and/or crematory services were being performed, and on whose behalf or for whose benefit the services were rendered. The court further held that the appellate court erred in concluding that, because the mishandling of the remains was intentional and outrageous, all family members and close friends of the decedents could recover damages for emotional distress. The court held that this conclusion was based on mistaken reasoning that defendants' conduct established the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress.