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In the context of recovering damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress on a relative, "relative" is defined a person connected with another by blood or affinity; a kinsman. "Affinity" is defined as a close agreement; the relation that one spouse has to the blood relatives of the other spouse; relationship by marriage; and any familial relation resulting from a marriage.
On January 7, 1999, Guardian, a skilled nursing facility in Walnut Creek, admitted the deceased Frances McMahon after she had undergone treatment at an acute care facility. Prior to moving to the assisted living facility, McMahon lived with the Moons "for a period of time." McMahon remained at Guardian for about 12 months, until she died. While at Guardian, Ken observed that McMahon had become malnourished and dehydrated, had lost significant weight, had become immobile and bedridden, had contracted infection, and had become incontinent. On January 22, 1999, Ken and Eileen appeared at Guardian to visit McMahon and they saw her lying in bed with infected wounds and black and purple blisters on her feet. John McMahon, as executor of McMahon's estate, and Ken and Eileen filed a complaint for nine causes of action against Guardian on January 7, 2000. The trial court sustained Guardian’s demurrer without leave to amend and entered a judgment of dismissal.
Did Ken sufficiently allege a bystander claim since he had a close relationship to McMahon as her son-in-law?
The appellate court agreed that the definition of "relative" obviously includes son-in-law. It also includes cousins, brothers-in-law, and numerous other--distant--relationships. No court has suggested that all relatives are sufficiently close to maintain an action for NIED. Indeed, a case prior to Thing refused recovery for a bystander claim on behalf of a cousin even when it was alleged that the cousins had a relationship analogous to that of siblings. Although both parties did not cite this case, the court has permitted an uncle, who lived in the same household as his nephew and had a relationship akin to that of a parent and child, to sue for NIED when he observed his nephew being injured. This case, however, has limited value; the court determined that the uncle and nephew were closely related based primarily on a foreseeability analysis. As discussed ante, the Supreme Court in Thing rejected the notion that a pure foreseeability analysis should apply to NIED actions. Furthermore, the uncle was a member of the nephew's household at the time that he observed the nephew being injured. This is not the case here: McMahon was residing in the care facility at the time of her injury. It is true that the Supreme Court in Thing did not restrict recovery for a bystander claim to "blood" relatives. However, the reason for this is obvious; spouses are not blood relatives but satisfy the requirement for a close relationship. Additionally, stepchildren, stepparents, and adopted children who are part of the familial relationship may not be related by blood to the family member making an NIED claim but may still be considered closely related. The appellate court agreed with the lower court and Guardian that by using the words "closely related" and highlighting the need to cut off liability beyond a certain point, absent exceptional circumstances, the court intended to limit NIED claims to members of the immediate family unit, such as parents, spouses, siblings, children, and grandparents of the victim. Indeed, the Supreme Court in Elden v. Sheldon (1988) 46 Cal. 3d 267, 276-277 [250 Cal. Rptr. 254, 758 P.2d 582], stated that some courts had not limited the recovery of damages for NIED to the immediate family of the injured person, but it declined to follow the rationale of those decisions "for to do so would result in the unreasonable extension of the scope of liability of a negligent actor." There is a presumption that members of the immediate family have emotional attachments. The Supreme Court has already explained that it would place too great a burden on the court to determine whether unmarried cohabiting couples have an emotional attachment similar to those in a familial relationship. It would be even a greater burden on the courts to have to consider whether in-laws have emotional attachments akin to parents/children or siblings.