The TortsProf blog is reporting today on an interesting case that illustrates some of the issues related to the reach of possible liability for emotional distress claims.
The case involves an accident at SeaWorld in Florida in 2010, where a SeaWorld trainer drowned during a public session. Two parents and their son were among the audience members and witnessed the drowning. Understandably, they were traumatized by the experience and later filed suit against SeaWorld for both intentional and negligence infliction of emotional distress.
According to this report from the Orlando Sentinel (which includes videos about the accident), the court dismissed the claims with prejudice, finding that they had failed to allege outrageous conduct (for the intentional claim) and that they had failed to show any precedent supporting a negligence claim for purely emotional distress when the plaintiff was "a complete stranger to the injured party."
Given generally accepted principles of the law related to emotional distress, this was the correct result. Courts are very reluctant to recognize claims by "bystanders" because the reach of possible liability would be too broad. Were this not the case, every single person in the audience could have a claim and if the show had been televised, maybe even anyone who watched it on TV anywhere could recover also - as long, of course, as they could prove the other elements of the cause of action.
The interesting question is whether we should recognize the cause of action. After all it is perfectly foreseeable that the witnesses would suffer emotional distress. As long as they can show negligence on the part of the defendant and can prove the value of their injury, why not allow them to sue? I know of one jurisdiction that allows for such broad liability and it has not brought about chaos or has resulted in "dogs and cats to live together/the end of the world as we know it."
I have mixed feelings about this question. I don't think that expanding the scope of possible liability that much is necessarily a good idea, but I do feel that if the defendant's negligence causes foreseeable injury you should be able to argue in favor of recognizing the right to recover.
But, as I said before, the generally accepted view is that this type of liability should be "limited." I wonder if, maybe, there is a way to expand liability a little bit, while still keeping it limited.