Law School Case Brief
Johnson v. Ruark Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs., P.A. - 327 N.C. 283, 395 S.E.2d 85 (1990)
North Carolina has established that to state a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant negligently engaged in conduct, (2) it was reasonably foreseeable that such conduct would cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress (often referred to as "mental anguish"), and (3) the conduct did in fact cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress.
The complaint alleged that the plaintiffs were expectant parents; the defendants were the doctors and their professional association who provided prenatal medical care to the plaintiff Barbara Johnson. Mrs. Johnson learned on 1 March 1983 that she was about 10 weeks pregnant. She was examined monthly from March through July, then examined almost weekly from August until the stillbirth in early October. Over this period, Mrs. Johnson was informed several times that her pregnancy was progressing normally, and she continued to experience fetal movement through the evening of 2 October 1983. On 3 October 1983, Mrs. Johnson began experiencing contractions and was admitted to Wake Medical Center at 5:30 p.m. Although the defendant Dr. Egerton had reported that fetal heart tones were present at 9:30 that morning, stethoscopic and ultrasound monitoring conducted after Mrs. Johnson's admission failed to reveal any fetal heart tones. The plaintiffs were notified at approximately 8:00 p.m. that the fetus was dead. Mrs. Johnson's labor continued until the fetus was stillborn at 3:27 a.m. on 4 October 1983.
After the stillbirth, Mrs. Johnson's husband, Glenn Johnson, as administrator of the fetal estate, brought a wrongful death claim against the defendants under N.C.G.S. § 28A-18-2. In the same complaint, the plaintiffs Glenn and Barbara Johnson also brought claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress in their individual capacities as father and mother of the fetus. The central allegation of the plaintiffs' claims was that the defendants were negligent by providing Mrs. Johnson inadequate prenatal care, thereby proximately causing the stillbirth and related injuries. The complaint sought damages for injuries to the individual plaintiffs in the form of costs and expenses, lost wages, and the "past, present and future pain and suffering and emotional distress of enduring the labor, with the knowledge that their unborn child was dead, and the delivery of the dead child." The trial court dismissed the case, the appellate court reversed, and the Supreme Court of North Carolina allowed defendants' petition for discretionary review.
Whether the father and mother of a stillborn fetus have individual claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the defendants whose alleged negligence caused the stillbirth.
The petition for discretionary review was limited to questions concerning whether an allegation of a physical injury was required to support a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Supreme Court of North Carolina reviewed North Carolina's history of a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress and determined that no physical injury was required. The court found that plaintiffs' complaint stated claims upon which relief could be granted because it alleged that as a foreseeable and proximate result of defendants' negligence, each of the plaintiffs experienced the past, present and future pain and suffering and emotional distress of enduring the labor, with the knowledge that their unborn child was dead, and the delivery of that dead child.
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