COA: Father satisfies Bystander Rule for negligence claim

A Pulaski County man claiming “negligent infliction of emotional distress” will be able to continue with his lawsuit after the Court of Appeals of Indiana found he satisfied the Bystander Rule even though he arrived at the scene about three hours after a gas explosion destroyed his house.

Kenneth Bradley filed a lawsuit against Ceres Solutions Cooperative Inc. seeking emotional distress damages after his home exploded and caught fire, killing his wife, Kathy, and severely injuring his son, Eric. Ceres had refilled the residential propane tank at the home but did not check for leaks. The gas was ignited when Eric turned on his bedroom lamp.

In his January 2020 complaint for negligent infliction of emotional distress, Bradley asserted he “came upon his home unaware that it had exploded at which time he could not find his wife and witnessed his son severely burned.” Ceres filed a motion for partial summary judgment, which the Pulaski Superior Court granted in regard to Eric but denied in regard to Kathy.

Ceres appealed and Bradley cross-appealed.

The appellate panel affirmed the trial court’s denial of Ceres’ motion as it related to Kathy but reversed the trial court’s grant of Ceres’ motion regarding Eric.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals found Bradley met the three factors to recover damages for his claim of “negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

One of the factors holds the bystander must come on the scene at or immediately following the incident. Even though Bradley arrived about three hours after the explosion but while his house was still burning, the Court of Appeals found the blast and the fire were a single injury-producing event. Also, because the flames were “big and steady” and firefighters were still attempting to search for Kathy, the appellate court ruled the injury-producing event was ongoing when Bradley arrived.

Ceres argued Bradley did not satisfy the bystander requirement that the victim must be in essentially the same condition as immediately following the incident. Eric, the company argued, had been wrapped in blankets and was being prepped to be flown out by helicopter when Bradley arrived.

“Here, Eric’s injuries were visible to Bradley,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the court. “Based on the video from an officer’s body camera, a blanket was placed over Eric; however, his face and torso were not covered so burns on his face were visible. Bradley testified that Eric’s face was ‘all blistered and peeled.’ It is not necessary for Bradley to have been able to see all of Eric’s burns.

“Further, when Bradley arrived, the flames were ‘big and steady[,]’ and although first responders had already arrived, they had not removed Eric from the scene,” Robb continued. “Therefore, because Bradley witnessed his son with visible burns in front of his burning home, we conclude that Bradley did experience the ‘gruesome aftermath’ of the accident.”

The case is Ceres Solutions Cooperative, Inc. v. Estate of Kathryn Bradley, et al., 21A-CT-377.

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