Law School Case Brief
Contreras v. Carbon Cty. Sch. Dist. #1 - 843 P.2d 589 (Wyo. 1992)
The Supreme Court of Wyoming recognizes the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress. In order to avoid burdening the court system with an overbroad theory of liability, it places limits on possible recovery under that cause of action. Only those plaintiffs can recover: (1) whose kinship to the accident victim will permit them to bring a wrongful death action; (2) who observe the infliction of serious bodily harm or death, or observe the serious bodily harm or death shortly after its occurrence but without material change in the condition or location of the victim; and (3) whose loved one do, in fact, sustain death or "serious bodily injury" as defined in the Wyoming Criminal Code. Wyoming is one among a small number of states, which allows recovery for the emotional distress plaintiff experiences when she observes a loved one seriously injured or dead after the injury has actually occurred. The immediacy test allows some time to elapse between the time of injury and the time of observation. Once the victim's condition or location materially changes, however, the moment of crisis for which recovery is allowed is deemed to have passed, regardless of the brevity of time, which elapses since the accident. Shock or emotional distress may occur after this point, but it is no longer compensable. Wyoming follows a more liberal course than do many jurisdictions.
While playing on the playground of an elementary school operated by defendant Carbon County School District Number 1 ("District"), plaintiff J.C., a minor, was injured when he collided with another child. J.C. was moved from the playground to the school office and plaintiff Brenda Contreras, J.C.'s mother, was called. Mrs. Contreras rushed to the school where she found J.C. crying, which caused her to become upset. Mrs. Contreras asked that an ambulance be called, and paramedics later determined that J.C. suffered an inverted right femur. J.C. was taken to the hospital where he was fitted with a body cast that he wore for two and one-half months. J.C., Mrs. Contreras and plaintiff James Contreras, J.C.'s father, filed a lawsuit against the District and several school employees in Wyoming state court seeking to recover for J.C.'s medical expenses, home health care provided and pain and suffering. In addition. Mrs. Contreras sought damages for the emotional distress she incurred at seeing C.J. in severe pain and worrying that he might be permanently deformed by the injury. The trial court entered judgment against Mrs. Contreras on her emotional distress claim. A jury later rendered a verdict in favor of defendants. Plaintiffs appealed.
(a) Did the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress fall within the limitations of the cause of action as recognized by the Wyoming courts?; (b) Were certain photographs offered by plaintiffs properly excluded under defendants' motion in limine?
(a) No; (b) Yes.
On appeal, the state supreme court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court ruled that claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress did not fall within the limitations of the cause of action as the Wyoming courts recognized it. Wyoming was one among a small number of states that allowed recovery for the emotional distress a plaintiff experienced when she observed a loved one seriously injured or killed after the injury actually occurred. The state's immediacy test allowed some time to elapse between the time of injury and the time of observation. Once the victim's condition or location materially changed, however, the moment of crisis for which recovery was allowed was deemed to have passed, regardless of the brevity of time which has elapsed since the accident. Shock or emotional distress might occur after that point, but it was no longer compensable. The court further ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence relating to photographs of playground conditions at other schools in the district without evidence that the playgrounds were designed differently for safety reasons pertinent to the J.C.'s accident. If the evidence was available, it should have been presented in the form of an offer of proof. The parents failed to show that the photographs were relevant. The trial court also gave the parents an opportunity to make an offer of proof at trial.
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