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Law School Case Brief

Golstein v. Superior Court - 223 Cal. App. 3d 1415

Rule:

A plaintiff may recover damages for emotional distress caused by observing the negligently inflicted injury of a third person if, but only if, said plaintiff: (1) is closely related to the injury victim; (2) is present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurs and is then aware that it is causing injury to the victim; and (3) as a result suffers serious emotional distress -- a reaction beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested witness and which is not an abnormal response to the circumstances.

Facts:

Parents brought an action against a hospital where their son was negligently given a fatal overdose of radiation during treatment for a curable cancer. The parents were informed of the excessive radiation after the fact. They could not have observed the overdose, and they admitted that during the radiation therapy, they were unaware their son was being overexposed. The hospital demurred to their cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and the trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. The parents petitioned for a writ of mandate to reinstate the cause of action. 

Issue:

Can parents, who neither saw nor perceived an event of fatal radiation to their child, maintain a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal denied the petition, holding that the trial court did not err in sustaining the hospital's demurrer without leave to amend. The court held that to recover damages for emotional distress caused by observing the negligently inflicted injury of a third person, the plaintiff must experience a contemporaneous sensory awareness of the causal connection between the negligent conduct and the resulting injury. In the case of an event that cannot be perceived, distress recovery is not allowed. 

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