Law School Case Brief
Ra v. Superior Court - 154 Cal. App. 4th 142, 64 Cal. Rptr. 3d 539 (2007)
To recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a bystander, a plaintiff must plead and prove he or she (1) is closely related to the injury victim; (2) was present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurred and was then aware that it was causing injury to the victim; and (3) as a result suffered 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. The California Supreme Court has expressly disapproved suggestions that a negligent actor is liable to all those who may have suffered emotional distress on viewing or learning about the injurious consequences of his conduct, rather than on viewing the injury-producing event itself.
A shopper, Michelle Ra, sued a retail store owner, Presidio, which owns an Armani Exchange in Old Town Pasadena, for negligent infliction of emotional distress to a bystander after Ra’s husband was injured by a falling sign in Armani Exchange. The evidence showed that Ra knew her husband's location in the store immediately before the accident, heard a loud crash emanate from that area, and believed, as a result, that it was more likely than not that her husband had been injured; however, Ra did not know with reasonable certainty that her husband had been hurt until she turned and saw him immediately after the crash. The Superior Court of Los Angeles granted defendant Presidio’s motion for summary adjudication, finding that the evidence established that Michelle Ra had not contemporaneously perceived the injury to her husband.
Was the shopper’s emotional distress caused by the accident to her husband, even though she did not witness the accident itself, sufficient for a bystander claim?
The Court of Appeal denied the shopper’s petition for writ of mandate, holding that the facts did not support a bystander claim. The court observed that it is the traumatic effect of the perception of the infliction of injury that is actionable in a bystander claim, not the observation of the consequences of the occurrence or the contemporaneous perception of endangerment, which, while potentially stressful, is insufficient to cause legally cognizable harm. Absent a reasonable certainty that her husband was being injured by whatever caused the loud bang that she heard, what the shopper experienced at that time was simply fear. The emotional distress caused by fear is not compensable in a bystander claim.
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