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Law School Case Brief

Johnson v. Woman's Hosp. - 527 S.W.2d 133 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1975)

Rule:

The general rule is that punitive damages are not recoverable in a contract action and neither are damages for mental anguish, since it is not in tort and there is no physical injury. However, Tennessee has long permitted the recovery of substantial damages for mental suffering alone in the breach of a contract to bury or embalm a body.

Facts:

Dr. Pallas attended to Mrs. Johnson during the latter’s pregnancy. Mrs. Johnson gave birth to a premature child, who subsequently died shortly after birth. Mrs. Johnson understood that her baby would be given repose which would be consistent with common traditions of human dignity. However, when she visited Dr. Pallas for her six weeks checkup, she noted a pathologist report which was attached to her medical chart. She was then led to a section of the hospital where a freezer was opened and she was handed a gallon jar of formaldehyde with the discolored and shriveled body of her child floating inside. Subsequently, Mrs. Johnson suffered from nightmares, insomnia, and depression. The couple brought an action alleging breach of contract to bury, and for the alleged outrageous conduct of the physician and hospital. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, and held the defendants (Dr. Pallas and Woman’s Hospital) liable under the "outrageous conduct theory" and the "theory based upon agreement to dispose of immature baby’s body." After hearing defendants' motions for a new trial, the trial judge suggested a remittitur, which plaintiffs accepted under protest.

Issue:

Should the defendant hospital and defendant physician be held liable for punitive and compensatory damages to the plaintiff couple?

Answer:

Yes, as to defendant hospital. No, as to defendant physician.

Conclusion:

On appeal, the court held there was evidence from which a jury could find that the hospital agreed to properly handle the infant's body, but failed to do so and in fact mishandled the body. Thus there was proof that could warrant a recovery against the hospital based on a contract theory, and for its outrageous conduct in displaying the infant in the manner and under the circumstances described. But the court was unable to discover any proof from which it could be said that the physician ever agreed to do anything in regard to the disposition of the infant's body or that the couple expected him to in any manner dispose of the remains. The trial court should have directed a verdict for the physician; the court reversed the judgment against the physician and dismissed the suit against him. The court overruled plaintiffs' assignment of error as to the remittitur because under the circumstances of the case the verdicts as adjusted by the trial judge were not so excessive as to shock the conscience of the court and the court found that the trial judge did not err in granting the remittiturs that he did.

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