The cause of action for the negligent infliction of emotional distress requires proof of the following elements: (1) the death or serious physical injury of another caused by defendant's negligence; (2) a marital or intimate, familial relationship between plaintiff and the injured person; (3) observation of the death or injury at the scene of the accident; and (4) resulting severe emotional distress. A defendant's duty of reasonable care to avoid physical harm to others extends to the avoidance of this type of mental and emotional harm. Whether a duty exists is ultimately a question of fairness. The inquiry involves a weighing of the relationship of the parties, the nature of the risk, and the public interest in the proposed solution.
Plaintiff's seven-year-old son was trapped in an apartment building's elevator between its outer door and the wall of the elevator shaft and died after four-and-one-half hours when attempts to free him failed. Plaintiff sued defendants alleging that defendants, apartment owners and elevator companies, were negligent in failing to provide a safe elevator. Plaintiff also sued individually seeking damages for her mental and emotional distress caused by observing her son's anguish and death. The trial court granted defendant apartment owners' motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff's claims for mental and emotional distress. Plaintiff appealed the trial court's order.
May a parent recover damages for the emotional anguish of watching her child suffer and die in an accident caused by the defendant’s negligence?
The court reversed the order granting defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court approved a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Such a cause of action required proof that the death or serious physical injury of another was caused by defendants' negligence, a marital or intimate familial relationship between plaintiff and the injured person, observation of the death or injury at the scene of the accident, and resulting severe emotional distress. The court found that plaintiff had satisfied each of the required elements.