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California Personal Injury Laws: Famous Cases: Dillon v. Legg

 Yellow Tape Blocks a Crime Scene“…it has properly been said that when a child is endangered, it is not beyond contemplation that its mother will be somewhere in the vicinity, and will suffer serious shock.” (Prosser, Law of Torts (3d ed. 1964) p. 353.)

As part of my continuing series of famous case law that came from the California Court system, I wanted to discuss what is probably one of the most cited authorities throughout the United States on personal injury law as it relates to claims for emotional distress.  This is the California Supreme Court decision of Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal.2d 728.

Facts of the Case:  This was an auto accident claim where an infant child was killed.  At the time of the accident and the death of the child, both the child’s mother and sibling were present and witnessed the child die.  However, there was arguments as to whether just the sibling rather than the mother was in “close proximity” to the accident scene itself at or near the time of the child’s death.  The trial court granted a “summary judgment” against the mother on her claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress but, sustained the claim of the sibling.  It went up to the California Supreme Court to decide the scope of this tort of negligently causing another person emotional distress and who should be able to make this claim and under what circumstances.

Legal Issues PresentedPrior to this decision, there was much debate in U.S. tort law as to whether or not simply being traumatized emotionally by an event caused by another person’s negligent act should be a recognized cause of action for money damages.  The courts were sympathetic to the very real injury caused by witnessing traumatic events but, they were worried that this would “open the floodgates” to personal injury claims including potential, fraudulent claims.  The Dillon court was trying to establish a framework that would allow for emotional distress claims but, sufficiently limit their scope.  Leading up to this decision were several prior cases which focused on the so-called “zone of danger” test which required claimants to actually be subject to physical injury and harm before emotional distress claims could be made.

Ruling of the CourtTo digress, a claim for negligence requires that there be a duty to act or not act on the part of the wrongdoer and a breach of this duty which causes harm to another person. (For the legal definition under California law click here).  The court focused on the element of duty and, specifically, whether the potential for harm was foreseeable enough to impose a duty on the negligent driver.  They decided to impose a three-prong test as to whether the trauma should be foreseeable as follows:

  • Whether the plaintiff was near the accident scene
  • Whether they “contemporaneously observed” the incident which caused them traumatic shock and hysteria
  • Whether there is a close relationship between the victim of the accident and the person claiming emotional distress

By using these three criteria, the California Supreme Court determined that the mother of the dead infant child should, in fact, be allowed to make a claim for damages related to her emotional disturbance at having witnessed the death of her child.  They reasoned that she was close enough to the accident scene and observed the event causing injury and death and that, as the child’s mother, she had a close relationship to the victim.

Why is this case important to victims of personal injury in California: Since this ruling, there have been numerous related cases which have expanded upon and, sometimes, limited the scope of this tort.  The most significant was probably Thing v. La Chusa (1989) 48 Cal.3d 644which further defined how close to the accident scene the person needs to be to make this claim.  However, this decision firmly established a victim’s right to claim injuries that are emotional in nature in addition to physical pain related to a physical injury.

Additional Resources:

California Law on Emotional Distress

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