What is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Under Massachusetts Law?

To prove that a person has committed the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress under Massachusetts law, a plaintiff is required to prove five distinct and separate elements.

First, the injured party must prove that the defendant was negligent in their course of action or inaction. Second, a plaintiff must show that they suffered some sort of emotional distress as a result of the misconduct. Third, the plaintiff’s emotional distress must have caused some kind of physical harm. Fourth, a reasonable person standard applies in the analysis of whether there was physical harm, meaning that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have also suffered emotional distress.  And fifth, the emotional distress must have been directly caused by the defendant’s negligence. We shall examine each of these elements in turn.

Defendant’s Negligence

With respect to the first element, in order to establish a case of negligent infliction of emotional distress and recover money damages under Massachusetts law, a plaintiff needs to show that the defendant’s actions or failure to act amounted to negligence. The plaintiff needs to prove five key elements in order to do so.

Specifically, the injured party needs to show that: (1) the defendant had a legal duty to exercise reasonable care towards the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant failed to exercise the applicable standard of care and thereby breached the duty he owed to the plaintiff; (3) that the plaintiff suffered injury or harm due to this breach of a duty owed; (4) that the physical harm constituted actual and true damages; and (5) that the breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injuries suffered.

The plaintiff must show not only that the emotional distress was a direct consequence of the defendant’s actions. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that a reasonably prudent person in the same circumstances would not have done what the defendant did or that the defendant failed to do something that a reasonably prudent person would have done in the same or similar circumstances.

A jury, in a court of law, determines if negligence is sufficiently proven, considering all of these factors.


Emotional Distress Suffered By The Plaintiff

An injured party also must prove that the defendant’s actions proximately caused the plaintiff to become mentally or emotionally upset. In that regard, a plaintiff can experience a multitude of emotional distresses, including shock, stress, sadness, anxiety, anguish or depression. But the fact that the plaintiff may have had their feelings hurt is not enough to sustain the emotional distress requirement in a court of law.

A plaintiff must show that his or her emotional distress developed or caused some sort of physical harm as well. A plaintiff, however, claiming intentional rather than negligent infliction of emotional distress is not required to show actual physical harm.


Plaintiff’s Requirement of  Showing Actual Physical Harm 

Massachusetts courts have consistently ruled that physical harm is required in order to recover damages in a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. In so doing, the courts have tried to balance the plaintiff’s unforeseen complaints with the fairness of imposing liability against those who were allegedly negligent, as opposed to reckless. Therefore, Massachusetts courts, as well as the majority of courts in other states, have looked to see manifestations of physical injuries resulting from the mental anguish.

Recently, Massachusetts courts have softened their position on the physical injury requirement. The current standard in Massachusetts is that an individual case evaluation will determine whether or not a particular physical injury is substantiated.

In making that determination, it may be necessary to obtain expert medical testimony. The injured party, however, is not required to have expert testimony if it is obvious to all the world that a physical injury exists.  Massachusetts courts have ruled on the sufficiency of a wide variety of physical injuries. For example, a physical injury existed when a victim passed away as a direct result of emotional distress, such as from extreme shock. And the courts also have ruled that less serious physical symptoms may also qualify for physical injury, such as diarrhea resulting  from the emotional distress. It is also possible for a person to prove physical injuries based on the possibility of future harm.

Plaintiff’s Actions As A Reasonable Person

A fact finder in a Massachusetts court of law is also required to determine whether or not the defendant acted as a reasonable person should have in the same or extremely similar circumstances. The reasonable person standard is one of ordinary prudence.  If a defendant acted as a reasonable person should have, it is likely that a person cannot successfully receive a damage award against that defendant.

Emotional Distress Directly Caused By Defendant’s Actions 

Some claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress may affect the plaintiff directly. In other circumstances, a plaintiff may successfully claim negligent infliction of emotional distress indirectly, such as through bystander harm and liability. This  tort exists when the negligent behavior resulting in injury is actually inflicted on a third person. Massachusetts has limited the scope of bystander liability in three separate and distinct ways. First, the bystander must be closely related to the injured person. Second, the plaintiff must suffer emotional injuries as a direct result of witnessing the injury inflicted upon the third person. Third, the plaintiff must see or come upon the injured person soon after the injuries were suffered.

1. Plaintiff’s Relationship To Third Person

Many people who bring claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a bystander are family members who witnessed injury to another family member. Most often, these injured family members are children.

Massachusetts courts have thus far been reluctant to provide bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress damages to strangers of the injured. This bar from recovery is true even for those plaintiffs who, in good faith, believed the injured party was related to him or her.  To recover money damages, the bystander and the victim must have a close familial or other relationship. The reasoning behind this is to limit those classes of persons who may recover damages after witnessing an accident.

2. Plaintiff’s Emotional Distress Caused By Witnessing Injury To A Third Person

The bystander plaintiff proving a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress under Massachusetts law must show that they witnessed the injury being inflicted upon the third party victim or that they came upon the accident soon thereafter.  A family member who hears about the accident and rushes to the accident scene is most likely not going to arrive before emergency personnel. Massachusetts courts have thus not considered those who do arrive at the scene as having a greater likelihood to prevail than those who meet the injured victim at the hospital.

3. Plaintiff’s Timing Regarding Third Person’s Injuries

A plaintiff must show that he or she witnessed the third party receiving his or her injuries or came upon the accident immediately afterwards. The plaintiff must also show that the shock of witnessing the accident or the immediate aftermath of the accident has caused them emotional distress. This element is critical to a claim of bystander liability for negligent infliction of emotional distress under Massachusetts law. When the family member does not learn of the accident until hours later or does not witness any part of it, they will fail to satisfy this requirement.

Damages for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Under Massachusetts Law

A plaintiff who successfully proves their case for negligent infliction of emotional distress against a defendant may recover damages. These damages are similar to other tort claims and include compensation for the emotional distress and the physical harm caused by defendant’s actions. The plaintiff may also receive money damages for past and future medical expenses, loss of future earning capacity, lost wages, past and future pain and suffering, and loss of consortium.

A wide variety of additional damages are available to plaintiffs. Defendants may be required by the court to compensate a child who has been separated from his or her parents. Additionally, plaintiffs may receive compensation for anxiety and depression due to an increased susceptibility to disease from the defendant’s wrongful actions. Massachusetts courts have also granted plaintiffs compensation for a wrongful birth caused by a physician’s negligent genetic counseling. Courts are reluctant, however, to grant claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress for breaches of contracts, but they have done so at least once in the past.

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