Law School Case Brief
Sinn v. Burd - 486 Pa. 146, 404 A.2d 672 (1979)
The Supreme Court of California identified three factors determinative of whether the injury to the plaintiff was reasonably foreseeable: (1) Whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who was a distance away from it. (2) Whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence. (3) Whether plaintiff and the victim were closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.
Plaintiff JoAnne Marie Sinn lived with her husband and two minor children, L.S. and D.S., in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County. On June 12, 1975, at approximately 5:53 p. m., L.S. and D.S. were standing by the Sinn's mail box located along side the Greenock-Buena Vista Road, approximately 36 feet from the nearest intersection. An automobile operated by the defendant Brad Lee Burd struck L.S. and hurled her through the air, causing injuries which resulted in her death. The vehicle did not strike D.S., although it narrowly missed her. JoAnne witnessed the accident from a position near the front door of her home. The Sinns filed a four-count trespass complaint against Burd on June 3, 1976. The first and second counts were brought under the Wrongful Death and Survival acts, respectively. The third count was brought for D.S. for psychological damages she sustained as a result of watching her sister die. The fourth count was brought by JoAnne for damages she sustained from the emotional stress of witnessing her daughter's death. Burd filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer to the third and fourth counts claiming that the complaint failed to aver that D.S. and JoAnne were in personal danger of physical impact, that they feared such physical impact, or that they suffered physical injury as a result of the emotional distress caused by the accident. The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Civil Division, Pennsylvania, sitting en banc, overruled the demurrer as to the third count but sustained it as to the fourth. Based on its reading of Niederman v. Brodsky, 436 Pa. 401, 261 A.2d 84 (1970), and subsequent superior court decisions, that court ruled that while D.S. was within the zone of danger and hence could proceed with her action, JoAnne was not within the zone of danger. JoAnne appealed to the superior court which affirmed without opinion. JoAnne appealed.
On the basis that JoAnne was not within the zone of danger, did JoAnne's complaint lack a cause of action, and consequently was it proper for the trial court to grant Burd's preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer as to JoAnne's claim?
The state supreme court held that the trial court prematurely sustained preliminary objections to the fourth count of the complaint on the basis that it did not state a cause of action. According to the court, a tortfeasor's liability for mental distress was not to be denied solely because the plaintiff was beyond the zone of physical danger; rather, the foreseeability of the injuries sustained by the plaintiff should be examined. In the case at bar, the court held that the JoAnne's injuries were of a nature reasonably foreseeable. Where the bystander was a mother who witnessed the violent death of her small child and the emotional shock emanated directly from personal observation of the event, the court held as a matter of law that the mental distress and its effects was a foreseeable injury.
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