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Pennsylvania Court Adopts New Basis for Negligent Emotional Harm Cases

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania - the oldest appeals court in the country, having been established in 1684 — issued an important decision in December 2011 that expanded the types of people in the commonwealth who can sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (often shortened to NIED).

In Toney v. Chester County Hospital, the court adopted a new, fourth category of NIED claim that Pennsylvania courts will recognize going forward — when a pre-existing “special relationship” exists that creates a duty from one person to another, and negligently breaching that duty would foreseeably cause “emotional harm so extreme that a reasonable person should not be expected to endure the resulting distress.”

Tragic Events

The facts of Jeanelle Toney's case are heartbreaking. When she was pregnant, the reviewing radiologist pronounced her baby normal in a routine ultrasound. However, when the baby was born, he had shocking, multiple birth defects, causing his mother severe emotional trauma by witnessing the birth, an experience that she says led to many problems, including hysteria, flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety, nausea, headaches and more.

Toney claims that because the doctor negligently misinterpreted the ultrasound results, she was unable to prepare herself for the shock of learning of her son's extensive disabilities at his birth. Further, Toney alleges that the doctor had a duty to “protect her from fright or emotional disturbance” that would be caused by misreading an ultrasound and failing to diagnose birth defects.

She brought suit for NIED against the doctor, hospital and related parties not for her son's medical problems or for any physical personal injury or negligent medical treatment, but “solely for the emotional distress she claims she continues to suffer from witnessing the birth of her physically deformed son without prior knowledge of the deformities.” She singled out the powerful duty to expectant parents of a radiologist interpreting prenatal results to do so without making a negligent mistake.

History of NIED in Pennsylvania

Originally, Pennsylvania courts followed the “impact rule,” meaning that a plaintiff could only sue for NIED if he or she had also been physically impacted in some way by the defendant, even though the suit was for emotional harm. Emotional distress was not recognized as enough to support a lawsuit without something more -something physically harmful.

The first expansion beyond the impact rule was when commonwealth courts began to allow “zone-of-impact-liability” claims in 1970. This includes the situation when a plaintiff suffers emotional damage because of a defendant's actions, and even though the defendant did not actually touch the plaintiff, the actions of the defendant were in close proximity to plaintiff.

The second extension beyond the impact rule and the zone-of-impact claims occurred when Pennsylvania courts adopted “bystander liability” for NIED cases in 1979. This allowed someone who witnessed the trauma of a close family member being physically impacted or injured by another person.

Pre-existing Special Relationship NIED Claims Recognized

Because Jeanelle Toney's case did not fit within any of these three recognized types, for it to go forward, the court was asked to recognize a fourth category of NIED claim — the “special relationship.” The trial court dismissed the complaint, the appeals court reversed and the case ended up before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Prior to Toney , two Pennsylvania lower court decisions had recognized an extension of the NIED doctrine to a “pre-existing contractual or fiduciary duty”. The Supreme Court expresses dissatisfaction with this choice of language and seems to use theToney opinion in part to specifically clarify the nature of this type of claim and rename it the “special relationship” exception to the physical-impact requirement of earlier jurisprudence.

In a lengthy, thoughtful opinion, the court carefully reviewed court decisions from other states that have adopted this new type of NIED claim, as well as writings by legal scholars, ultimately deciding that it was time for Pennsylvania courts to allow the special-relationship NIED claim.

The types of similar relationships that seemed to influence the Toney court involved literally life-and-death situations, like those dealing with mortuaries, funerals, corpses or burial; mental health; and pregnancy and birth. For example, the court looked at a New York case where an embryo was implanted in the wrong mother and a Wyoming case where a child had been switched at birth in the hospital and then subjected to verbal abuse because she looked different than the family that raised her.

The Toney court, however, did caution that not all doctor-patient relationships will rise to the “special relationship” level for purposes of NIED liability.

Physical-Impact Requirement Waived for Special-Relationship NEID Claims

A significant aspect of the court's holding in Toney is that in such a special-relationship NIED case, the breaching party need not ever make physical contact with the harmed individual, a historical requirement of NIED cases. Instead, this new exception must involve a pre-existing special relationship with a heavy duty to care for the other's “emotional well-being,” breach of which would cause “deep emotional harm” so devastating that a reasonable person could not be expected to bear it.

Calling the historical physical-impact requirement a “flawed tool,” the court said that some emotional distress is obviously legitimate enough to form the basis of a lawsuit without any requirement that the “plaintiff be hit with an object.” The court did acknowledge, however, that without physical contact it will be more difficult for such a plaintiff to prove causation between the negligence and the psychic distress.

The Supreme Court sent the Tomey lawsuit back to the trial court to be tried, noting that if the case makes it to trial, it will be a jury's difficult job to place a dollar amount on the plaintiff's emotional damages.

If you or a loved one has suffered emotional distress because of the actions of another person, you should discuss the situation with an experienced Pennsylvania personal injury attorney to learn about your potential legal remedies.

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