The Supreme Court of Georgia (“Georgia Supreme Court”) held in a case decided on March 6, 2017 that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover for negligent mishandling of the remains of her stillborn baby because of Georgia’s physical impact rule limiting liability for emotional distress damages in negligence cases.
Georgia’s Physical Impact Rule
In the absence of pecuniary loss, the following three elements are necessary to recover damages for emotional distress caused by negligence: (1) a physical impact to the plaintiff; (2) the physical impact causes physical injury to the plaintiff; and (3) the physical injury to the plaintiff causes the plaintiff’s mental suffering or emotional distress.
However, there is a single, carefully circumscribed exception to the physical impact rule, which authorizes recovery of damages by a parent where the parent and her child both suffered a physical impact that caused them both physical injuries, even if the parent’s emotional distress arose not only from her physical injury but also from watching her child suffer and die.
The Underlying Facts
On February 8, 2011, the plaintiff, who was 37-weeks pregnant, went for a routine prenatal examination at her obstetrician-gynecologist’s office at which time she learned that her unborn baby did not have a heartbeat. The following day, the plaintiff was admitted to the defendant hospital where her labor was induced and she delivered a stillborn baby girl.
After the delivery, the hospital’s bereavement coordinator spoke with the plaintiff and her father, who informed the coordinator that the remains of the baby were to be released to a specific funeral home. The bereavement coordinator completed a mortuary permit and supporting documents that included the pertinent funeral home information and placed these documents with the plaintiff’s chart. The coordinator placed the plaintiff’s baby in a separate holding room on the same floor until someone could take the baby to the hospital morgue. In addition to the plaintiff’s baby, there was a smaller stillborn baby boy, who was less than 20 weeks in gestation, already in the holding room.
Hospital staff mixed up the identification tags for the two babies, and their bodies were misidentified. Because of the incorrect identification tags, the hospital mistakenly released the wrong baby to the funeral home chosen by the plaintiff. On February 12, 2011, the plaintiff attended a funeral for a deceased stillborn baby whom she believed was her stillborn baby.
On February 23, 2011, the hospital discovered that it had released the wrong baby to the funeral home. The hospital contacted the plaintiff by telephone and informed her that the hospital had released the wrong baby for burial. The following day, the baby who had been mistakenly released to the funeral home was exhumed from the cemetery. The funeral home director then delivered the exhumed baby to a different funeral home and retrieved the plaintiff’s baby from the hospital but he discovered that the cadaver bag contained nothing but a blanket, and he had to return again to the hospital morgue to obtain the plaintiff’s baby, whom hospital employees had left in a holding room in the morgue.
Once the funeral director obtained the proper remains from the hospital, the plaintiff’s baby was buried at the cemetery. The hospital paid the costs associated with the exhumation of the misidentified baby and the subsequent burial of the correct remains. The plaintiff did not attend the second burial because she “could not handle having to go through that all over again.”
In March 2011, the plaintiff filed her lawsuit against the hospital, seeking damages for the emotional distress she suffered as a result of the mishandling of her stillborn’s remains. The hospital moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiff’s emotional distress claims failed under Georgia law because the plaintiff suffered no physical injury or pecuniary loss and the conduct of the hospital was not intentional, reckless, extreme, or outrageous.
Applying Georgia law, the trial court concluded that the plaintiff’s claims failed as a matter of law under the standard for emotional distress claims in Georgia. The trial court granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.
The Georgia Supreme Court Decision
The Georgia Supreme Court held that the facts of this case, while tragic, do not warrant the creation of a new exception to the physical impact rule (the plaintiff did not suffer any physical impact that resulted in physical injury from the hospital’s negligent mishandling of her stillborn child’s remains, nor did the child suffer any physical impact or injury).
Source Coon v. The Medical Center, Inc., S16G0695.
If your loved one’s remains were mishandled in Georgia or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a medical malpractice lawyer in Georgia or in your state who may investigate your mishandling of remains claim for you and represent you in a negligent handling of remains case, if appropriate.
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