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One can reasonably foresee that people who enjoy an intimate familial relationship with one another will be especially vulnerable to emotional injury resulting from a tragedy befalling one of them. Foreseeability based on that standard preserves the distinction that must be made between ordinary emotional injuries that would be experienced by friends and relatives in general and those indelibly stunning emotional injuries suffered by one whose relationship with the victim at the time of the injury, is deep, lasting, and genuinely intimate. Persons engaged to be married and living together may foreseeably fall into that category of relationship. Given the widespread reality and acceptance of unmarried cohabitation, a reasonable person would not find the plaintiff's emotional trauma to be remote and unexpected.
Eileen Dunphy and Michael T. Burwell became engaged to marry in April 1988 and began cohabitating two months later. The couple set a date of February 29, 1992, for their wedding. On September 29, 1990, the couple responded to a friend's telephone call for assistance in changing a tire on Route 80 in Mount Arlington. As Michael changed the left rear tire of the friend's car on the shoulder of the roadway, he was struck by a car driven by defendant, James Gregor. After being struck by the vehicle, his body was either dragged or propelled 240 feet. Eileen, who had been standing approximately five feet from Michael, witnessed the impact, and ran to him immediately. Realizing that he was still alive, she cleared pebbles and blood from his mouth to ease his breathing. She attempted to subdue his hands and feet as they thrashed about, all the while talking to him in an effort to comfort him. The following day, after a night-long vigil at Dover General Hospital, Eileen was told that Michael Burwell had died as a result of his injuries. Since the accident, Eileen has undergone psychiatric and psychological treatment for depression and anxiety. She instituted an action seeking to recover damages for the "mental anguish, pain and suffering" experienced as a result of witnessing the events that led to the death of her fiancee. Eileen testified at her deposition that both she and Michael had taken out life-insurance policies making each other beneficiaries. They had maintained a joint checking account from which they had paid their bills, and also they had jointly purchased an automobile. In addition, Michael had asked her several times to elope with him, and he had introduced her in public as his wife. The trial court denied Eileen relief because she was neither married to nor involved in an intimate familial relationship with the decedent, but the appellate court reversed, ruling that a jury should have been allowed to determine whether Eileen’s relationship was the functional equivalent of such a relationship.
Did the appellate court err in ruling that a jury should be allowed to determine whether the relationship of cohabitants engaged to be married was the functional equivalent of an intimate familial relationship?
The court affirmed the decision of the appellate court and held that traditional application of tort law was required in that it was foreseeable that severe emotional injury could befall Eileen as a result of Gregor’s negligent actions. The court found that allowing recovery by Eileen would not increase the burden of care for negligent drivers and would advance the goals of tort compensation while sufficiently limiting liability.