- Defending Claims of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in Pennsylvania
- March 17, 2010
- Law Firm: McCumber, Daniels, Buntz, Hartig & Puig, P.A. - Eagleville Office
It is not uncommon in personal injury actions to see a count included in a Plaintiff’s Complaint titled “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress.” Though the count can be alleged in various ways, it is most commonly alleged by a husband or a wife who allegedly suffered “emotional distress” as a result of the negligence which caused injury to their spouse.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that, in order to have a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, three (3) elements must be met:
1) Plaintiff must be located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who is a distance away from it;
2) The shock must result from a direct emotional impact upon Plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident; and
3) The Plaintiff and the victim must be closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.
Sinn v. Burd, 404 A.2d 672, 685 (Pa. 1979).
An interesting and often overlooked aspect of a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim is the “closely related” requirement. In a recent case, the decedent was of Iranian descent, but had moved to the United States in recent years, seemingly because he had been suffering from gastrointestinal problems and wished to receive better medical care in America. The decedent had come to live with his sister-in-law in Pennsylvania, and underwent surgery in the Philadelphia area. Following the surgery, the decedent experienced pain, and ended up in the hospital, where he died a few weeks later.
Plaintiff, the decedent’s sister-in-law, alleged in her Complaint against the hospital that she was a victim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Preliminary Objections were successful in having the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim stricken from Plaintiff’s Complaint. In evaluating the “closely related” requirement, the Court had to consider how someone who lived thousands of miles away, and was not a blood relative, could have a relationship sufficient to satisfy the Pennsylvania requirements for this claim.
In the case of Blanynar v. Pagnotti Enterprises, Inc., 679 A.2d 790, 794 (Pa. Super. 1994), the Pennsylvania Superior Court limited the ability to claim emotional injuries to by-standers who were members of the victim’s immediate family. In the Court’s Order, the Court also noted that the Plaintiff was not a member of the decedent’s household, another factor which could have proven a close relationship.
Plaintiff’s often cite Turner v. The Medical Center, 686 A.2d 830 (Pa. Super. 1996), the Court found the “closely related” standard to be satisfied by a woman who assisted in her sister’s delivery of a stillborn fetus. Even a blood relationship does not, however, automatically mean a close relationship exists. While a blood relationship is not considered satisfactory, alone, for meeting the standard, it is a major factor which the Court in both Turner and Blanyar established in order for a claim of this nature to survive. That relationship did not exist with a sister-in-law here. The Court also considered that the Court in Zentz v. Harne, 2 Pa.D. & C.5th 398 (Somerset County 2007) denied Preliminary Objections to strike this type of claim brought by a son-in-law. The Court did not find the relationship at issue here to be of the same nature as that of a sister, or son-in-law. The defense argued that if the Court were to establish that sending emails and internet chat satisfied the “closely related” prong of the Sinn test, the Court would be opening up the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim to an unlimited pool of potential plaintiffs, which the Sinn, Blanyar and Turner Courts certainly did not intend.
Despite the potential for significant claims on this issue, there are few court decisions. This may be because the issue is often argued at the Preliminary Objections stage, and rarely appealed. These claims warrant close examination, however, as their viability is limited.