When a plaintiff did not witness an injury-producing event, the cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress requires proof of the following elements: (1) the actual or apparent death or serious physical injury of another caused by the defendant's negligence, (2) the existence of a close and intimate personal relationship between the plaintiff and the deceased or injured person, (3) the plaintiff's observation of the actual or apparent death or serious physical injury at the scene of the accident before the scene has been materially altered, and (4) the resulting serious or severe emotional injury to the plaintiff caused by the observation of the death or injury.
An injured child's mother and brother filed for damages against an insurer, alleging that they sustained severe emotional injuries after observing the child on the pavement in a pool of blood. The insurer asserted that the child's mother and brother could not recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress because they did not see or hear the accident that caused the child's injuries. The trial court held that sensory observation of an accident was not a required element of a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The insurer appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
The issue before the court was whether persons seeking to recover damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress were required to be in sufficient proximity to the injury-causing accident to perceive the actual event with one of their senses.
The court determined that it was appropriate and fair to permit recovery of damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress by those who had a close personal relationship with an injured party and who arrived at the scene of an accident while the scene was in essentially the same condition it was in immediately after the accident. The court would not prevent appellees from pursuing a claim for the negligent infliction of emotional distress simply because they did not see or hear the automobile strike their family member.