In the summer of 2010, John Seybold was checking his family out of the Disney All-Star Movie Resort. His two children were waiting for him in the car. John heard his wife scream. He ran out of the hotel and found her pinned between the back of his car and the front of a car that had been driven by Victor Clapis.
Clapis had rammed into the back of the Seybold automobile, put his car in park and got out of his vehicle. This left John’s wife, Mandy Seybold, trapped between the two vehicles. A bystander jumped in the car and backed it away in order to free Mandy. John arrived just in time to catch his wife before she hit the ground as the vehicle backed away. Mandy was injured and three years later, she still experiences pain in her leg.
The family filed a lawsuit against Disney and Clapis in federal court alleging, among other causes of action, negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). Relying on Florida Supreme Court precedent, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed the case brought by John Seybold, but allowed the lawsuit to proceed on behalf of the Mandy and the Seybold children on the theory of negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Elements of NIED
What a person must prove in order to sustain a claim for NIED in Florida depends on whether there was an impact.
The person suffered a physical impact
This can be any sort of force applied to the physical body. If plaintiffs suffer a physical impact, they must show they suffered emotional distress “stemming from the incident during which the impact occurred, and not merely the impact itself.”
In the Seybold case, there was no question that Mandy Seybold suffered an impact. The children, who were in the car at the time their mother was pinned against it, were physically shaken by the impact. Even though Clapis nor his car made direct contact with them, they had physical impact stemming from the primary impact of the car hitting their mother.
The person suffered no physical impact
The person must have been near enough to the impact to hear or see it, or arrive on the scene “as the traumatizing event occurs, and the plaintiff must suffer the complained of mental distress and accompanying physical impairment.”
In other words, for the person who didn’t experience an impact, the psychological trauma he or she experiences must be so severe that it manifests itself as a physical injury. At least, the physical injury does not have to be severe as long as it’s “observable and objective.”
As for Mr. Seybold, he clearly suffered no impact. Catching his wife before she hit the ground was a “separate incident” caused by the bystander who moved Mr. Clapis’s car. Since he admitted he didn’t suffer any physical injury due to the emotional trauma, and he wasn’t involved in the impact, the court dismissed his claim.
The rationale for the impact rule is that physical impact is measurable harm, whereas emotional distress can’t be measured. Since civil claims will be paid in money, the suffering has to be measurable so as to put a proper dollar amount on it. Requiring an impact, or a physical injury stemming from emotional trauma by being close to the impact both helps to limit false claims and to allow the court to give some sort of way to measure emotional distress
Exceptions to the Impact Rule
The Florida Supreme Court has allowed exceptions to the impact rule as a matter of public policy. For example, a person who witnesses a close family member being killed or sustaining a severe injury may pursue a claim of NIED. Also, in cases of negligent defamation or invasion of privacy, NIED damages are allowed. For example, when parents filed suit for NIED based on the negligent stillbirth of their child at forty-one weeks of pregnancy, the Florida Supreme Court allowed the action to go forward.
The Florida Supreme Court has also allowed damages for NIED when a person eats or drinks contaminated foods or beverages and interprets the ingestion as an “impact.” Observing the contaminated food is not enough to support a NIED claim. That same court has also held open the possibility that it may someday find other exceptions to the rule.
If you believe you were involved in an incident that could give rise to a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, you need the assistance of an experienced personal injury attorney. Contact us for a free case consultation. We are ready to handle your complex case.