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What is negligent infliction of emotional distress?

You can call it common knowledge that in an accident between two vehicles, or when a car hits a pedestrian, a person who is injured as a result can have a claim for negligence against the driver responsible. But that is not the only way that someone can become a plaintiff from a car accident; indeed, another type of potential plaintiff can exist, one who might not even have been present at the accident.

In California, courts recognize two kinds of claims for the infliction of emotional distress: intentional, and negligent. Negligent infliction of emotional distress can be “direct” (that is, the plaintiff was harmed directly by the defendant), or “indirect” – the plaintiff was not physically injured, but was still harmed emotionally. This is referred to in the law as a “bystander” cause of action.

The California Supreme Court case that establishes liability to bystanders is Thing v. La Chusa, 48 Cal.3d 644 (1989). In this case, the supreme court laid out the elements for a bystander to claim negligent infliction of emotional distress:

  • First, the bystander plaintiff must be closely related to a person who was physically injured in the accident.
  • Second, the bystander plaintiff must be at the scene of the accident when it happens, and also know that it injured the victim that he or she is closely related to.
  • Third, the bystander plaintiff must suffer severe emotional distress, which means emotional harm that goes beyond what would be foreseeable in a witness who was not closely related to the physical accident victim.

“Closely related” plaintiffs include relatives who live in the same household as the physically injured person. This can mean a spouse, parents, grandparents, siblings and children of the accident victim, but does not extend to to unmarried couples. “Severe emotional distress” means a degree of emotional harm that a reasonable person would be unable to cope with.

In a car accident, passengers who uninjured physically or people who are nearby but were not involved in the accident can qualify as plaintiffs in a case of bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress.

If you have witnessed an injury to a loved one, and you are experiencing severe emotional distress as a result, you should consult with a California personal injury attorney to learn more about what possible bystander-related legal claim you may have.

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