Tennessee Court of Appeals Finds Merit in Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

When a party is injured by the negligence of another party, that individual typically has claims for the pain and suffering and other damages that they experienced. Additionally, in some states, like Tennessee, those who knew the party, were closely related to the person injured, or witnessed the injury that occurred may also have their own claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). Since NIED claims could potentially open a defendant up to many claims by many different parties, they are typically construed quite narrowly and require plaintiffs to show that they were immediately affected by an “injury producing event.” In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the court considered whether an injury producing event had to occur instantly or could be the product of prolonged negligence over time.

In this case against Vanderbilt University, R.H. and his wife, T.H., brought wrongful death claims on behalf of their deceased daughter, as well as their own NIED claims based on her death. Their daughter, H.H., was admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital after experiencing septic shock related to the flu. Despite appearing to have cardiac symptoms, H.H. was never treated by a cardiologist and worsened over time. Thirty-six hours after being admitted, H.H. experienced cardiac arrest while her parents were by her bedside. Although CPR was attempted, H.H. later had a stroke and was ultimately determined to be brain dead and passed away approximately a week later. R.H. and T.H. claimed that Vanderbilt’s multiple failures in attempting to care for their daughter constituted an injury-producing event, and their witnessing of that event had caused them severe emotional distress, requiring medication, in-patient psychiatric treatment, and ultimately a job change. Vanderbilt moved for summary judgment on the NIED claim, arguing that the parents had not witnessed a injury producing event because the ultimate cause of H.H.’s death was her stroke, which neither parent had witnessed. R.H. and T.H. argued in response that the prolonged failure of Vanderbilt to respond to their daughter’s illness was the injurious event, which they had witnessed. The lower court heard evidence on the motion and ultimately determined that the parents did not witness an injury producing event, so they could not bring an NIED claim. R.H. and T.H. appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered the history of NIED claims in Tennessee at great length. It noted that there are two types of NIED claims in Tennessee, one in which the plaintiff herself suffers an emotional injury because of the negligence of another party, and a second in which the plaintiff suffers an emotional injury because the negligence of another party caused an injury to a third person. These are known as bystander claims. The court first determined that R.H. and T.H.’s claim was a bystander claim. Under Tennessee law, plaintiffs who bring bystander claims must witness the injury producing event as it occurs or must witness the aftermath of the event immediately after it happens. Here, the Court of Appeals noted that T.H. and R.H. had alleged that they did witness an injury producing event, the failure to provide their daughter with adequate care over 12 hours. While Vanderbilt argued that an injury producing event must be one that is specific and limited, the Court of Appeals held there was no case law to suggest that the event had to be so limited. It held that to impose such an arbitrary limitation on NIED claims would change the scope of Tennessee NIED law in a significant way, and it would shield defendants who engaged in long-term negligence from liability for an NIED claim. Instead, it determined that the public interest in ensuring that those who engage in negligence are held accountable meant that new limitations should rarely be imposed on NIED claims, and Vanderbilt’s argument was unavailing. The Court of Appeals held that R.H. and T.H.’s allegations that they observed Vanderbilt’s failure to provide care over a series of hours constituted an injury producing event for the purposes of an NIED claim. Accordingly, it reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment on the claim.

This holding suggests that NIED claims may arise in a broad range of circumstances when negligence occurs, and they do not require plaintiffs to necessarily witness a sudden and traumatic event in order for NIED to occur. Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley is a trial lawyer with extensive experience dealing with emotional damages claims and can advise you on whether an NIED claim may be viable in your case, or if it is better for you to focus on other losses you have experienced. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Finds No Claim for Emotional Distress Exists for Property Damage, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 6, 2017

Tennessee Courts Permit Daughter To Bring Wrongful Death Claim, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 25, 2017.

Sixth Circuit Denies Negligence Claim For Lack of Physical Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 21, 2016.

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