ILNews

Supreme Court rules on emotional distress case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Spouses can recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress claims even when there is no physical injury or direct impact, but unmarried or engaged couples cannot, the Indiana Supreme Court said today.

The state ;s high court also held in its opinion that such a claim requires the plaintiff to have learned of the incident by having either witnessed the injury or the immediate gruesome aftermath.

Its unanimous opinion with a separate concurring opinion from two justices is the answer to a certified question from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Amy Smith v. James M. Toney and John Christner Trucking Co. The case comes out of Marion County following an accident where Smith ;s fiancée, Eli Welch, collided with a tractor-trailer on I-70 near Plainfield in June 2003. She later went to find Welch in the early morning hours and drove by the accident scene where she observed what had happened. Smith sued in 2004, alleging severe emotional distress from her fiancée ;s death.

After being assigned to the 7th Circuit, the federal circuit court sent the case back to Indiana to reinterpret a 2000 state ruling and determine whether temporal or relationship determinations exist for plaintiffs to bring bystander claims of emotional distress, and whether a fiancée is "analogous to a spouse" as used in the past decision and what "soon after the death of a loved one" means.

On the first question, the justices stated three reasons: that marriage affords a bright line and is often adopted by the legislature in defining permissible tort recovery; that the marriage line avoids the need to further explore any relationships that could be asserted as "analogous"; and that limiting defendants ; liability to spouses limits the scope of potentially liability.

"Drawing a bright-line distinction in the context of bystander recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress between spouses and engaged couples recognizes these different legal duties and responsibilities," Justice Ted Boehm wrote.

In addressing the meaning of "soon after the death of a loved one," the court wrote that a requirement of bystander recovery is both temporal and circumstantial, and the scene viewed by a claimant must be essentially the same as it was at the time of the incident and the claimant must not have been notified of it before arriving.

A single paragraph concurring opinion from Justice Frank Sullivan and concurred by Justice Robert D. Rucker states, "… The majority opinion makes clear that Welch and Smith were not involved in a cohabiting but unmarried relationship. As such, its comments with respect to relationships other than the fiancé-fiancée relationship at issue here are unnecessary to the decision in this case and therefore not precedential."

Read the full opinion at Amy Smith v. James M. Toney and John Christner Trucking Co. Inc.
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  1. I will be filing a lawsuit in Tippecanoe County for so many violations in a case we became involved in, including failure to contact through mail, Violation of 4th Amendment rights, Violation of Civil Rights, and so on. Even the Indiana Ombudsmen Bureau found violations and I have now received the report and they are demanding further training in Tippecanoe County. I am going to make sure they follow through!!!

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  3. I thought the purpose of the criminal justice center was to consolidate all the criminal services and get them out of downtown to clean up the place. Why in the HELL are the civil courts moving? What a burden to all the downtown law firms. Now we all get to work downtown, but then have to get in a car and COMMUTE to court? Who approved this idiocy?

  4. I drive through the neighborhood whenever I go to the City-County Building or the Federal Courthouse. The surrounding streets are all two way with only two lanes of traffic, and traffic is very slow during rush hour. I hope that enough money has been allocated to allow for improvement of the surrounding streets.

  5. I have had an ongoing custody case for 6 yrs. I should have been the sole legal custodial parent but was a victim of a vindictive ex and the system biasedly supported him. He is an alcoholic and doesn't even have a license for two yrs now after his 2nd DUI. Fast frwd 6 yrs later my kids are suffering poor nutritional health, psychological issues, failing in school, have NO MD and the GAL could care less, DCS doesn't care. The child isn't getting his ADHD med he needs and will not succeed in life living this way. NO one will HELP our family.I tried for over 6 yrs. The judge called me an idiot for not knowing how to enter evidence and the last hearing was 8 mths ago. That in itself is unjust! The kids want to be with their Mother! They are being alienated from her and fed lies by their Father! I was hit in a car accident 3 yrs ago and am declared handicapped myself. Poor poor way to treat the indigent in Indiana!

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