Law School Case Brief
Gates v. Richardson - 719 P.2d 193 (Wyo. 1986)
The essence of the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress is the shock caused by the perception of an especially horrendous event. It is more than the shock one suffers when he learns of the death or injury of a child, sibling or parent over the phone, from a witness, or at the hospital. It is more than bad news. The kind of shock the tort requires is the result of the immediate aftermath of an accident. It may be the crushed body, the bleeding, the cries of pain, and, in some cases, the dying words which are really a continuation of the event. The immediate aftermath may be more shocking than the actual impact. Therefore, the Supreme Court of Wyoming holds that the plaintiff can recover if he observed the infliction of serious bodily harm or death, or if he observed the serious bodily harm or death shortly after its occurrence but without material change in the condition and location of the victim.
Six-year old Johnny Gates was riding his bicycle in a school zone in Green River, Wyoming. As Johnny crossed the street, he was struck by Kelly Richardson’s vehicle. Johnny suffered massive brain injury resulting in a traumatic coma and loss of sight and hearing. In addition to Johnny's claim for medical expenses, pain and suffering, future lost wages and permanent disability, Johnny's mother, sister and brother sought damages from Richardson for the emotional distress they suffered from observing Johnny's severe injury at the scene of the accident. Johnny's father sought damages for loss of Johnny's future companionship, and his stepfather sought damages for loss of consortium with Johnny's mother stemming from her emotional injuries. The district court dismissed all counts, except Johnny's claim for personal injuries, on grounds that they failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted.
Were claims for loss of consortium and companionship, and the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress actionable in Wyoming?
The Supreme Court of Wyoming held that the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress was actionable in Wyoming under certain limitations. According to the court, only those who could bring a wrongful death action for the primary victim's death under Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-38-102, 2-4-101 (Cum. Supp. 1985), could bring an action, and that the primary victim had to die or suffer serious bodily injury as defined in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-1-104(a)(x) (Cum. Supp.). Furthermore, the court held that only an eligible person who observed the infliction of the fatal or harmful blow or the results of the blow after its occurrence without material change in the condition and location of the victim could recover, and the defendant's negligence must have proximately caused the emotional injuries. Johnny's mother, sister and brother were all members of the class of permissible plaintiffs. According to the complaint, they either witnessed Johnny's injury or observed the immediate aftermath without a material change in Johnny's condition or location. Johnny suffered serious bodily injuries which caused him protracted impairment of brain function. All three plaintiffs alleged damages for their mental harms. Their claims should not have been dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6), W.R.C.P. In the case at bar, the court held that mother's emotional injuries could support the stepfather's claim for loss of consortium, but that the mother and father could not recover for loss of the child's companionship.
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