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Georgia Court of Appeals Says Accident Victim May Pursue Damages Arising from Emotional Trauma

On July 16, a fractured Georgia Court of Appeals held a plaintiff could seek damages for emotional distress arising from a truck accident. Although Georgia law generally does not allow damages for “negligent infliction of emotional distress,” there is an exception for a “pecuniary loss” arising from physical injury. In this case, the appeals court judges disagreed over whether this pecuniary loss rule covered the circumstances alleged by the plaintiff.

Oliver v. McDade

The plaintiff and several others were returning home from a dirt race in a truck owned by the plaintiff and driven by one of his friends. The truck was towing the plaintiff’s race car. Somewhere on I-16 in Dublin, they stopped to check the trailer hitch. At that moment, a tractor trailer swerved onto the shoulder and hit the plaintiff’s truck and trailer. The plaintiff’s friend was crushed and killed immediately. The plaintiff suffered a number of physical injuries. He was subsequently diagnosed with a number of emotional injuries, including depression, insomnia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The plaintiff sued the driver, owner and insurer of the tractor trailer. The defendants asked the trial judge for summary judgment of the plaintiff’s claim for damages arising from emotional distress. The defense maintained the plaintiff’s emotional injuries arose, at least in part, from witnessing his friend’s death, which is not recoverable under Georgia law. The judge denied the defendants’ motion but allowed them to immediately appeal his decision to the Court of Appeals.

A full nine-judge court heard the case. Eight judges voted to affirm the trial judge’s decision, meaning the plaintiff’s emotional distress case can proceed. The majority produced three separate opinions, however. Presiding Judge Sara L. Doyle delivered the principal judgment, which was only joined in full by Judge William M. Ray, II. Judge Doyle said it was clear from the evidence presented so far that all of the plaintiff’s alleged emotional injuries arose from the physical injuries suffered in the accident. But, Judge Doyle added, even if some of the plaintiff’s emotional injuries arose from witnessing his friend’s death, he might still recover from the defendants under the pecuniary loss rule so long as the plaintiff also suffered some physical injury.

Judge Christopher J. McFadden wrote the second opinion. He agreed with Judge Doyle’s conclusions but disagreed with some of her footnotes. He added that under the pecuniary loss rule, the plaintiff could recover for the “serious emotional distress of witnessing his close friend’s suffering and death without regard to whether the emotional trauma arises out of a physical injury.”

Judge Michael P. Boggs wrote the third opinion. He agreed with Judge Doyle that nothing in the evidence presented so far suggests the plaintiff’s emotional trauma arose from anything other than his physical injuries. Judge Boggs disagreed with Judge McFadden’s view that this was a case where the pecuniary loss rule applied.

Presiding Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews wrote the only outright dissenting opinion. He accused Judge Doyle and Judge McFadden of creating an “unprecedented and unauthorized expansion of the pecuniary loss rule.” He said the plaintiff should not be allowed to pursue any damages under the pecuniary loss rule.