Supreme Court rules on emotional distress case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
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.

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Great observation Smith. By my lights, speaking personally, they already have. They counted my religious perspective in a pro-life context as a symptom of mental illness and then violated all semblance of due process to banish me for life from the Indiana bar. The headline reveals the truth of the Hoosier elite's animus. Details here: Denied 2016 petition for cert (this time around): (“2016Pet”) Amicus brief 2016: (“2016Amici”) As many may recall, I was banned for five years for failing to "repent" of my religious views on life and the law when a bar examiner demanded it of me, resulting in a time out to reconsider my "clinging." The time out did not work, so now I am banned for life. Here is the five year time out order: Denied 2010 petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): (“2010Pet”) Read this quickly if you are going to read it, the elites will likely demand it be pulled down or pile comments on to bury it. (As they have buried me.)

  2. if the proabortion zealots and intolerant secularist anti-religious bigots keep on shutting down every hint of religious observance in american society, or attacking every ounce of respect that the state may have left for it, they may just break off their teeth.

  3. "drug dealers and traffickers need to be locked up". "we cannot afford just to continue to build prisons". "drug abuse is strangling many families and communities". "establishing more treatment and prevention programs will also be priorities". Seems to be what politicians have been saying for at least three decades now. If these are the most original thoughts these two have on the issues of drug trafficking and drug abuse, then we're no closer to solving the problem than we were back in the 90s when crack cocaine was the epidemic. We really need to begin demanding more original thought from those we elect to office. We also need to begin to accept that each of us is part of the solution to a problem that government cannot solve.

  4. What is with the bias exclusion of the only candidate that made sense, Rex Bell? The Democrat and Republican Party have created this problem, why on earth would anyone believe they are able to fix it without pushing government into matters it doesn't belong?

  5. This is what happens when daddy hands over a business to his moron son and thinks that everything will be ok. this bankruptcy is nothing more than Gary pulling the strings to never pay the creditors that he and his son have ripped off. they are scum and they know it.