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. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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