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What Is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress?

Emotional DistressThe medical world can be a difficult one to experience, whether as a patient or a bystander. Still, most medical professionals do their absolute best to ensure that the difficult incident that necessitates urgent medical care causes as little trauma as possible. When a medical professional engages in conduct that negligently ignores the sensibilities of a patient or bystander, they may be liable for the distress they inflict upon that person. However, there is a specific set of factors that must be shown before a plaintiff in such a case can recover.

What is “Serious” Emotional Distress?

Most states no longer recognize a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), but California still does. The rationale is that emotional distress can be just as debilitating, if not more so, than physical injury, and in specific cases, this should be actionable. The crux of the argument is that the plaintiff must be able to show that they suffered “serious” emotional stress, rather than a momentary episode of fear, shock or shame. The California jury instruction on NIED defines “serious” emotional distress as being so bad that an ordinary person would be unable to cope with it.

Another potential factor in determining NIED is that California does recognize a doctrine from common law, referred to as the ‘eggshell plaintiff’ rule, that essentially states that a defendant must take his plaintiff as he finds him. In other words, if someone is predisposed to nervousness or emotional instability, something may cause them serious emotional distress, even if it would not do the same to another person, and the defendant still may be liable, even if a “normal” person would not have had the same reaction.

Direct Victims vs. Bystanders

It is also worth noting that the criteria for establishing NIED differ slightly between a direct victim and a bystander (California does allow bystanders to bring suit for NIED in very specific circumstances). In both instances, one must prove both (a) that the doctor was negligent, and (b) that their negligence was a substantial factor in the harm suffered by the plaintiff. However, a bystander must be present at the direct scene of the injury, and be aware that the plaintiff was being injured, or they will be unable to press a claim.

Bystander recovery, in particular, can be quite difficult, since the California Supreme Court has clarified that bystanders must be present for the injury itself, rather than simply for the after-effects, though it is the after-effects that can arguably be far more distressing. In Bird v. Saenz (2002), the plaintiff was unsuccessful in her NIED claim because she was not in the room when a doctor ‘nicked’ one of her mother’s arteries, even though she witnessed her mother changing color and being wheeled off to emergency surgery.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney

Emotional distress can be just as painful and long-lasting as physical pain, and if a medical professional has caused you to suffer as a result of their negligence, you may be entitled to compensation. The knowledgeable San Jose medical malpractice attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. are committed to ensuring our clients have the best possible chance to receive the appropriate outcome after what they have suffered. Contact us today to set up an appointment either via our website, or by phone at (408) 289-1417. We serve San Jose, the Bay Area, and the counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Monterey, Alameda and San Benito.

Client Reviews
My experience with Attorney Brad Corsiglia during my recent medical malpractice case was nothing short of amazing given the very stressful circumstances. I was fortunate to find Brad highly recommended from a mutual contact and from the very beginning of the process, Brad was truly engaged and knowledgeable in understanding my case and providing input on what avenues were available to me. Michelle M.