Florida Law on Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

When a person acts negligently, they not only risk causing physical injury, but also inflicting emotional harm. Both physical and emotional injuries can be debilitating and both are very real, but the latter can be much more difficult to prove. In Florida, courts only allow a plaintiff to recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress under specific circumstances (Note: this post will focus on cases where the defendant acted negligently, rather than intentionally or recklessly causing harm). While these circumstances are narrow, our Panama City personal injury law firm evaluates all of our injury cases to determine if such damages are appropriate.

Mother Tells Reporters About the Fear that Followed a Three-Car Accident

WJGH's coverage of a serious car accident in Panama City provides a reminder of the emotional trauma that can follow a crash. Panama City police say that the three-car accident occurred when a truck slammed into a silver SUV, which then hit a black car. Both the SUV and car were stopped at a traffic light on Highway 231. Catrina Stewart was in one of the stopped vehicles and expressed her fear at being unable to open the door to get to her children, ages 2 and 7. In her words, "Scared to death, scared, lots of things running through my head." One man was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. No one else required medical attention.

The Impact Rule: A Very Narrow Standard

For most claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress, Florida follows the Impact Rule. Crafted by a court back in 1893 (International Ocean Telegraph Co. v. Saunders, 14 So. 148 (1893)), the Impact Rule permits recovery for emotional distress only when the plaintiff sustained a physical injury. The reasoning was the difficulty of proving emotional injury and the fear a looser standard would create a flood of lawsuits. When an impact exists, plaintiffs can recover for emotional distress stemming from the injury/impact itself and for emotional distress tied to the underlying incident (ex. a person who lost a leg in a car accident may recover for the emotional trauma of the accident itself and for distress stemming from the loss of the limb).

Crafting an Exception to Broaden Available Claims

Over time, the Florida Supreme Court found that the Impact Rule was overly harsh and sought to craft an exception that allowed meritorious claims but still avoided a flood of fraudulent claims. In Champion v. Gray, 478 So.2d 17 (Fla.1985), the court created an exception that was restated in Zell v. Meek, 665 So.2d 1048 (Fla.1995). The exception permits recovery on proof that:

  1. The plaintiff suffered a physical injury.
  2. The injury was caused by psychological trauma.
  3. The plaintiff was involved to some degree in an incident that caused negligent injury to someone else.
  4. The injured person and the plaintiff have a close personal relationship.

For example, suppose a father was playing in his yard with his daughter when a speeding car swerved off the road, hitting and severely injuring the girl. If the stress of witnessing the accident caused the father to have a heart attack, the exception would apply and allow the father to recover for emotional distress, even if he wasn't hit by car himself. Overall, as described in the Champion decision, the exception allows a claim "for damages flowing from a significant discernible physical injury when such injury is caused by psychic trauma resulting from negligent injury imposed on another who, because of his relationship to the injured party and his involvement in the event causing that injury, is foreseeably injured."

Helping Clients Recover the Maximum Damages Available Under Florida Law

Negligent infliction of emotional distress claims are just one of the many potential avenues for recovery following an accident. As a Panama City traumatic injury lawyer, Attorney Pittman is committed to evaluating each client's case to determine if damages for emotional distress are appropriate. This commitment is just one part of our pledge to help our clients recover to the fullest extent allowed under Florida law.

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