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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. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  2. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  3. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

  4. My dear Smith, I was beginning to fear, from your absense, that some Obrien of the Nanny State had you in Room 101. So glad to see you back and speaking truth to power, old chum.

  5. here is one from Reason magazine. these are not my words, but they are legitimate concerns. http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/03/fearmongering-at-the-splc quote: "The Southern Poverty Law Center, which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds, has issued a new "intelligence report" announcing that "an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) -- a 244% jump." To illustrate how dangerous these groups are, the Center cites some recent arrests of right-wing figures for planning or carrying out violent attacks. But it doesn't demonstrate that any of the arrestees were a part of the Patriot milieu, and indeed it includes some cases involving racist skinheads, who are another movement entirely. As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible." --- I wonder if all the republicans that belong to the ISBA would like to know who and why this outfit was called upon to receive such accolades. I remember when they were off calling Trent Lott a bigot too. Preposterous that this man was brought to an overwhelmingly republican state to speak. This is a nakedly partisan institution and it was a seriously bad choice.

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