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Another person’s negligent act, such as running a red light, can cause both physical harm and emotional distress to an accident victim. California law defines emotional distress as including suffering, anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, and shame.

Compensation for emotional distress is nearly always available when a victim suffers physical harm as a result of another person’s negligence. But what about cases in which negligent behavior causes fright, shock, horror, or grief in a person who is not physically injured?

Negligent infliction of emotional distress

Under some circumstances, California law allows victims to sue for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. The law is different when someone commits an act with the intent to cause emotional distress, but this article focuses on cases in which a driver (or any other negligent actor) has an accident that causes bystanders to suffer emotionally.

In the absence of physical harm, California law allows victims to recover compensation for negligently inflicted emotional distress in only a few circumstances. The negligent mishandling of a loved one’s corpse is one example.

The most common recovery of compensation for negligently inflicted emotional distress arises when a bystander witnesses an accident. Even if the bystander is not physically harmed by a collision, watching another person suffer a severe or fatal injury can be emotionally overwhelming.

Compensation for bystanders who witness an accident

Different states take different approaches to a bystander’s recovery of compensation for emotional distress that has been negligently inflicted. In California, compensation is available when a bystander experiences emotional distress as a result of witnessing an accident that injures another person, but only if:

  • the person seeking the recovery is closely related to the accident victim;
  • that person actually perceives the accident and is immediately aware that the accident injured the victim; and
  • the emotional distress that the person experienced was serious.

Emotional distress is “serious” if ordinary people would not be able to cope with it. The emotional distress must be greater than a disinterested bystander would have experienced after witnessing the accident.

Individuals who are “closely related” to the accident victim include parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren of the accident victim. Relatives who live in the same household as the accident victim may also be regarded as closely related to the victim.

Current California law does not regard unmarried partners as “closely related” to each other. Given the law’s evolving understanding that marriage is not the only marker of a close relationship, that limitation in the law may be ripe for reexamination.

Awareness of the accident

Compensation is only available if the person who experienced emotional distress was present at the accident scene and was immediately aware that the accident was causing injury to a close relative. A mother who sees a car striking her daughter is an example of a situation in which compensation is available for emotional distress.

Learning about the accident from another person, even if the information is relayed seconds after the accident occurs, will not make a relative eligible for emotional distress compensation. Similarly, arriving at the scene immediately after the accident occurs will not permit compensation if the distressed relative was not aware of the accident when it happened.

While the bystander must perceive the accident and be aware of the injury it causes in order to recover emotional distress compensation, it is not always necessary for the bystander to see the injury occur. For example, if a parent sees an explosion and knows that her child was inside the room where the explosion occurred, the parent’s awareness that her child must have been injured or killed by the explosion permits recovery for emotional distress, even if the parent did not see what the explosion did to the child.

On the other hand, if a parent hears a car accident but is not immediately aware that the car struck the parent’s child, the parent cannot receive compensation for emotional distress damages. That is true even if the parent observes his injured child moments after the accident. If the parent heard the accident and, at the same moment, heard his child scream, it is more likely that a court would conclude that the parent was aware of the child’s injury at the time it occurred and is therefore eligible to recover emotional distress damages.

The lines that separate cases in which damages can and cannot be awarded for the intentional infliction of emotional distress are not always easy to discern. An experienced personal injury lawyer should evaluate your case as quickly as possible if you were present at an accident scene and suffered serious emotional distress after witnessing an injury to your close relative.