Emotional Distress in Medical Malpractice Claims?

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We were pleased to see your interest in our recent post regarding emotional distress damages in the LPL space.  In continuing with that topic, we turn to emotional distress claims in the context of medical malpractice.  Medical malpractice victims are generally entitled to recover for emotional harm they endure, but what about the victim’s family? Many states permit some form of recovery for bystander emotional distress.  However, translating that type of claim into the field of medical malpractice can be trickier as there is often no specific “accident” to observe when a medical mistake is made.  The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently addressed this issue, reconciling a split in the state courts as to whether a claim of bystander emotional distress was available as a result of medical malpractice.

Warning: the facts of this case may be upsetting to some.  In Squeo v. Norwalk Hospital Association, the plaintiffs’ son who had a history of mental illness had recently undergone an emergency psychiatric examination for suicidal thoughts.  After he was discharged from the hospital, the son walked home and hung himself from a tree in his parents’ yard.   The parents did not know that their son was discharged from the hospital until they arrived home and found him in the yard.   The parents subsequently filed suit for medical malpractice and bystander emotional distress.   The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the bystander emotional distress claim and the plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal the state Supreme Court affirmed the summary judgment, but clarified the unsettled area of the law on this issue.  The Court concluded that the recognition of bystander claims was not limited to particular types of negligence claims.

While the new holding clarified that bystander emotional distress damages are available in the context of medical malpractice, the Court still noted that the claim will only stand in cases where the medical mistake is a result of gross negligence.  Furthermore, plaintiffs must satisfy several conditions in order to recover, one of which requires plaintiffs to sustain serious emotional distress.  With respect to whether the emotional distress is “serious” the Court looked to the tests employed by other states and determined that the bystander must suffer emotional injuries that are disabling or that render the bystander unable to cope with the challenges of daily life.

The Court noted that the new rule makes viable only “the remote specter of bystander emotional distress claims.” The decision appears to afford health care providers some level of protection.   However, it may be some time before the full implications of the decision are realized and whether this new cause of action will be as limited as the court apparently intends.