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§54.1 Cases Arising From Injuries to Another – Witnessed

The Case: Ramsey v. Beavers , 931 S.W.2d 527 (Tenn. 1996).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff brought a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress when after he observed his mother being struck and killed by a car.

The Bottom Line:

  • "Rather than focusing on subjective statements of fear or surmised conclusions of whether one's physical location is within the zone of danger, we hold that in the future liability shall be determined by application of general negligence law as set forth in this opinion." 931 S.W.2d at 531.
  • "The general negligence approach adopted for determination of cases involving emotional injuries requires that plaintiff establish each of the five elements of negligence - duty, breach of duty, injury or loss, causation in fact, and proximate causation. While we reject the rigid zone of danger approach set forth in Shelton, that rejection serves only to dissolve rigid, often nonsensical, physical injury and contemporaneous fear requirements. It does not reduce or lessen plaintiff's obligation to establish that the emotional injuries suffered were factually and legally caused by the breach of a duty owed to plaintiff by a defendant." Id.
  • "We, therefore, hold that to recover for emotional injuries sustained as a result of death or injury of a third person, plaintiff must establish that defendant's negligence was the cause in fact of the third person's death or injury as well as plaintiff's emotional injury. Secondly, plaintiff must establish that the third person's death or injury and plaintiff's emotional injury were proximate and foreseeable results of defendant's negligence." Id.
  • "Establishing foreseeability, and therefore a duty of care to plaintiff, requires consideration of a number of relevant factors. The plaintiff's physical location at the time of the event or accident and awareness of the accident are essential factors. Obviously, it is more foreseeable that one witnessing or having a sensory observationFN2 of the event will suffer effects from it. As has been explained:
    The impact of personally observing the injury-producing event in most, although concededly not all, cases distinguishes the plaintiff's resultant emotional distress from the emotion felt when one learns of the injury or death of a loved one from another, or observes pain and suffering but not the traumatic cause of the injury.
    Thing v. La Chusa , 771 P.2d 814, 828 (Ca. 1989). Thus, plaintiff must establish sufficient proximity to the injury-producing event to allow sensory observation by plaintiff.
    FN2 The term 'sensory observation' is used to allow, under circumstances in which all prerequisites are met, recovery by one who either does not or cannot visually observe the event, but observes the event by some other sense, such as audibly."
    Id .
  • "A second factor is the degree of injury to the third person. We agree with the New Jersey Supreme Court's analysis of this factor:
    While any harm to a spouse or a family member causes sorrow, we are here concerned with a more narrowly confined interest in mental and emotional stability. When confronted with accidental death, "the reaction to be expected of normal persons," . . . is shock and fright. . . . Since the sense of loss attendant to death or serious injury is typically not present following lesser accidental harm, perception of less serious harm would not ordinarily result in severe emotional distress.
    Portee v. Jaffee , 417 A.2d 521, 528 (N.J. 1980). Thus, plaintiff seeking recovery for emotional injuries suffered as a result of injury to a third party must establish that the injury to the third party was, or reasonably was perceived to be, serious or fatal." Id.
  • "A third factor which relates to the foreseeability of plaintiff's emotional injury is plaintiff's relationship to the injured third party. Most courts have required that the relationship be 'close.' In justifying this requirement, courts have deferred to medical judgment which is in 'general agreement that a mere bystander who has no significant relationship with the victim will not suffer the profound, systematic mental and emotional reaction likely to befall a close relative. . . .' James v. Lieb, 375 N.W.2d 109, 115 (Neb. 1985). Stated differently: 'It is the very nature of the relationship between the plaintiff and the victim which makes the emotional reaction experienced by the plaintiff so poignant.' Heldreth v. Marrs, 425 S.W.2d 157, 163 (W.Va. 1992)." Id. at 531-32.
  • "We reiterate that plaintiff must establish that defendant's negligence factually and legally caused plaintiff to suffer serious or severe emotional injuries. As we made clear in Camper, our ruling does not provide recovery for 'every minor disturbance to a person's mental tranquility.' Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104, 107 (Iowa 1981), but only for serious or severe emotional injuries. A ''serious' or 'severe' emotional injury occurs where a reasonable person, normally constituted, would be unable to adequately cope with the mental stress engendered by the circumstances of the case.' Camper v. Minor, 915 S.W.2d at 446." Id. at 532.
  • "Our holding in Camper and here should not be construed to allow recovery for fright or fear alone. Likewise, hurt feelings, trivial upsets, and temporary discomfort would not be sufficient for recovery. Only those serious or severe emotional injuries which disable a reasonable, normally constitutedFN3 person from coping adequately with the stress are sufficient to form the basis for recovery. Additionally, the 'claimed injury or impairment must be supported by expert medical or scientific proof.' Id.
    FN3 By reasonable, normally constituted person we mean a person of ordinary sensitivities. See Heldreth v. Marrs, 425 S.E.2d 157, 166 (W.Va. 1992)."
    Id .
  • "Our holding today abandons the hypertechnical approach of the zone of danger rule and recognizes that in certain circumstances a plaintiff whose physical safety is not endangered may nonetheless suffer compensable mental injury as a result of injuries to a closely related third person which plaintiff observes sensorily. As has been recognized:
    To require that the plaintiff must be within the zone of physical danger of the defendant's negligent conduct and fear for his or her own safety in order to recover for the serious emotional distress blatantly ignores the very cause of the plaintiff's emotional distress.
    Heldreth v. Marrs , 425 S.E.2d at 169." Id.
  • "Utilizing the general negligence approach for causes of action based on negligent infliction of emotional distress with its traditional focus on foreseeability, and requiring that the injuries for which compensation is sought be serious or severe, will reasonably limit liability while allowing recovery in meritorious cases." Id.

Other Sources of Note: Lourcey v. Estate of Scarlett , 146 S.W.3d 48, 54 (Tenn. 2004) (holding that the relationship between the plaintiff and an injured third party is relevant to, but not dispositive of the duty and causation elements of a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim and damages).

Recent Cases: Eskin v. Bartee , 262 S.W.3d 727 (Tenn. 2008) (holding persons who observe an injured family member shortly after an injury-producing accident may pursue a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress); Flax v. DiamlerChrysler Corp., 272 S.W.3d 521 (Tenn. 2008) (holding mother was required to comply with Camper requirements to support claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress where her alleged emotional injury was not related to any physical injuries she may have sustained, but instead to witnessing her child's death); Crawford v. J. Avery Bryan Funeral Home, Inc., 253 S.W.3d 149 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007) perm. appeal denied (April 7, 2008) (holding that claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (and other tort claims alleged by plaintiff) can only be brought by person with a right to control disposition of the body and therefore dismissing claim for lack of standing); Akers v. Buckner-Rush Funeral Enterprises, Inc., No. E2006-01513-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 4146206 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 21, 2007) perm. appeal denied (Apr. 7, 2008) (holding that order of priority for bringing claims for unauthorized mutilation of dead body is (1) spouse of decedent; (2) adult children of decedent; (3) parents of decedent; (4) adult siblings of decedent; (5) adult grandchildren of decedent; and (6) grandparents of decedent and dismissing all claims, including emotional distress claim, for lack of standing).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

The book is now available electronically by subscription at The new format allows us to keep the book current as new opinions are released. BirdDog Law also has John's Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Statutes available by subscription, as well as multiple free resources to help Tennessee lawyers serve their clients

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