In its decision released on April 28, 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided whether, and under what circumstances, a bystander emotional distress claim may be brought in connection with an injury arising from alleged medical malpractice and what degree of emotional distress a bystander must suffer before he or she may assert a bystander claim for emotional distress.
Bystander Emotional Distress Claims
The Connecticut Supreme Court stated that bystander emotional distress is a derivative claim, pursuant to which a bystander who witnesses another person (the primary victim) suffer injury or death as a result of the negligence of a third party seeks to recover from that third party for the emotional distress that the bystander suffers as a result.
The Connecticut Supreme Court held that bystander emotional distress claims should be available in the medical malpractice context but only under extremely limited circumstances: a bystander to medical malpractice may bring a claim for the resulting emotional distress only when the injuries result from gross negligence such that it would be readily apparent to a lay observer (“a bystander to medical malpractice may recover for the severe emotional distress that he or she suffers as a direct result of contemporaneously observing gross professional negligence such that the bystander is aware, at the time, not only that the defendant’s conduct is improper but also that it will likely result in the death of or serious injury to the primary victim”).
The Connecticut Supreme Court further held that a bystander must suffer injuries that are “severe and debilitating,” such that they warrant a psychiatric diagnosis or otherwise substantially impair the bystander’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and demands.
The Underlying Facts
The plaintiffs’ suicidal son was discharged by the defendants after the defendants conducted an emergency psychiatric evaluation of their son. Thirty-five minutes later, the son committed suicide in their front yard by hanging himself from a tree. The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit against the defendants, alleging that they were negligent in discharging their son and that they suffered severe emotional distress as a result of their son’s suicide.
The plaintiffs alleged the following facts:
On the evening of August 14, 2007, the mother called the police because her son was depressed and expressed a desire to harm himself with an electrical cord. Later that evening, the son was detained by the police and admitted to the defendant hospital for an emergency psychiatric examination. At the hospital the son was evaluated by the defendant advanced practice registered nurse.
The following morning, the defendant left a telephone message for the plaintiffs indicating that their son would soon be released from the defendant hospital because he was no longer a danger to himself or others. The son was allowed to leave the hospital.
After walking home alone, the son obtained an electrical cord and immediately hanged himself from a tree in the plaintiffs’ front yard. Soon afterwards, the father saw his son hanging from the tree and the plaintiffs ran to assist their son. In an attempt to revive him, the plaintiffs cut the electrical cord and administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Despite the plaintiffs’ best efforts, their son had already suffered a substantial brain injury and he ultimately died after being taken off life support on August 23, 2007.
The Defendants’ Challenge To The Plaintiffs’ Bystander Emotional Distress Claim
The defendants challenged the plaintiffs’ bystander emotional distress claim, contending (1) that bystander emotional distress claims may not be brought in the medical malpractice context and, in the alternative, (2) that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiffs had suffered “severe and debilitating” emotional distress. The trial court granted judgment in favor of the defendants based on their alternative argument.
The Connecticut Supreme Court stated, “We are unable to conclude, as a matter of law, that a hospital that discharges a potentially suicidal patient under the circumstances alleged could not have demonstrated gross negligence in so doing, when the patient then proceeded to take his own life shortly after discharge.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court stated that a bystander to an accident or injury caused by the negligence of a third party may bring an independent claim for his or her own emotional distress when (1) the bystander is closely related to the primary victim of the accident or injury, (2) the bystander’s emotional distress is caused by the contemporaneous sensory perception of the event or conduct that causes the accident or injury, or by arriving on the scene soon thereafter and before substantial change has occurred in the primary victim’s condition or location, (3) the primary victim dies or sustains serious physical injury, and (4) the bystander experiences serious emotional distress as a result.
The Connecticut Supreme Court stated that the issue in the present case was the standard governing the fourth prong of the test, namely, the type and degree of emotional distress that a bystander must suffer as a result of witnessing the death or serious physical injury of a loved one.
The Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plaintiffs suffered “severe and debilitating” emotional distress as a result of the defendants’ alleged negligence (the plaintiffs admitted that they had required neither medication nor prolonged mental health care as a result of witnessing their son’s hanging, and also that they had remained steadily employed following the incident): “We agree with the defendants that a bystander cause of action will lie only when the bystander’s psychological injuries are both severe and debilitating, such that they warrant a psychiatric diagnosis or otherwise substantially impair the bystander’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and demands.”
Source Squeo, et al. v. The Norwalk Hospital Association, et al., SC 19283.
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