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Can You Recover Personal Injury Damages for Witnessing a Fatal Accident?

An accident often leaves more than physical injuries. The victims also suffer emotional trauma that may persist for weeks, months, and even years after the accident itself. For this reason, Georgia law does recognize a variety of claims for emotional damages arising from an accident caused by a third party’s negligence.

Malibu Boats, LLC v. Batchelder

Just how far can such claims go? That is a question the Georgia Court of Appeals recently confronted in Malibu Boats, LLC v. Batchelder, a personal injury case arising from a 2014 boating accident in Rabun County, Georgia. The plaintiffs–a family including two adults and four children–took out a boat manufactured by the defendant onto Lake Burton.

One of the adult plaintiffs was driving the boat. According to court records, he “performed a circular turn which resulted in the boat striking its own wake.” This caused water to spill into the boat where the children were seated. The driver then reversed throttle to try and level the boat. At this point, the plaintiffs realized that one of the children was missing. Tragically, the missing child was found “entangled in the propeller.” The child ultimately died as the result of injuries sustained. The other children suffered non-life-threatening physical injuries, and at least one child “began hyperventilating and vomiting.”

The plaintiffs subsequently sued the defendant, alleging the negligent design of its boat led to the accident that killed the one child and caused physical and emotional injuries to the other plaintiffs. The defense moved for summary judgment against the three surviving children, arguing they were not entitled to damages for “negligent infliction of emotional distress” (NIED) under Georgia law. The trial judge denied the motion but certified the issue for immediate appeal.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge that the children could pursue damages for NIED but limited the scope of their claim. The first question the Court of Appeals needed to address was whether “contact with water” constituted enough of a physical injury upon which to base an emotional distress claim. Under Georgia law, there must be some “physical impact resulting in physical injury.” In this case, the appeals court said it was premature to conclude the children did not suffer a physical injury. It is possible for a reasonable jury to find that a “watercraft’s contact with water, including a collision with a wall of water such as a wake,[8] which results in swamping due to another’s negligence,” could meet the physical impact requirement of Georgia law.

However, the Court of Appeals rejected the children’s claim for emotional damages arising from the fact they witnessed the “overall traumatic scene” of the other child’s death. In Georgia, a person can not recover damages for mental suffering that is “distinct and separate” from any physical injury. The Georgia Supreme Court has recognized a limited exception to this rule for situations in which a parent and child are both injured in an accident, and the parent watches the child die, but that does not apply to the facts of this case.