Saturday, July 6, 2019

Alaska reiterates its approach to bystander emotional distress claims, which is very different than the one used in most other jurisdictions

As you probably know, back in 1968 the California Supreme Court created what has now become the majority approach to claims by people who suffer emotional distress at witnessing injuries suffered by others.  According to that approach, the claim is limited to plaintiffs who are closely related to the victim, are present at the scene of the accident and who have a contemporaneous sensory observance of the accident.  Someone who is told about an accident after it happens or who arrives at the scene only to observe the aftermath, would not have a claim.

Alaska, however, never adopted the requirement of the contemporaneous sensory observance.  According to this approach, the plaintiff can support a claim as long as he or she is a close relative of the victim and that, under the circumstances, it is reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff would suffer emotional distress.  This means the notion of duty in Alaska in these types of cases is broader and defendants are exposed to liability in many more cases.

I am writing about this today because I just read that the Alaska Supreme Court has again reiterated its approach to this issue in a new case called Doan v. Banner Health, Inc., (available in Westlaw at 2019 WL 2312537).

In this case, a mother, who was in a hospital waiting room when her daughter died, brought a NIED claim against medical providers for the distress she suffered upon seeing her daughter’s body. 

This claim would have been rejected in any state that follows the California approach and, obviously, in all states that reject it in favor of the "zone of danger" approach.  To my knowledge, this leaves only Alaska and Puerto Rico.

Thanks to the TortsProf blog for the update.

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