An often overlooked element of many personal injury cases is the emotional harm sustained by the victim. Georgia courts have long recognized “negligent infliction of emotional distress” as a tort, but recovery is generally limited to cases in which the emotional distress is connected to a “physical impact.” In other words, if you are physically hurt in a car accident, you can sue the negligent driver for your emotional trauma, but you cannot seek damages for purely emotional scarring, i.e. watching a loved one die in an accident.
Coon v. Medical Center, Inc.
In 2000, the Georgia Supreme Court made an exception to the “physical impact rule,” holding that when a parent and child are both physically injured in the same accident, the parent can seek damages for the emotional distress caused by watching the child “suffer and die.” Recently, the state Supreme Court declined to extend this exception to another case in which a mother suffered emotional harm after watching a hospital mishandle the remains of her daughter.
The plaintiff is an Alabama resident who was 37 weeks pregnant. She received a prenatal exam at a Georgia hospital. During the exam, the doctor discovered the unborn child did not have a heartbeat. The next day, the mother delivered the stillborn girl.
Hospital staff failed to properly tag the child’s remains, which were scheduled for transport to a funeral home in Alabama. As a result, the wrong remains were delivered. The plaintiff did not learn of the error until nearly two weeks after the funeral. The remains that were mistakenly buried were exhumed, and a second burial was held with the correct remains.
The mother sued the hospital for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The hospital moved to dismiss the case, citing Georgia’s physical impact rule. The mother replied that Alabama law should apply to her claims. Alabama courts recognize emotional distress claims based on mishandling human remains.
The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately had to settle the question of whether to apply Georgia or Alabama law. The justices decided that since the mother’s claim falls under the “common law,” as opposed to a statute, and both Alabama and Georgia recognize the common law, the “common law as determined by Georgia courts should control.” This means that even if the Alabama courts would recognize the mother’s emotional distress claim under its interpretation of the common law, the Georgia courts do not.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the “tragic” circumstances of this case, but nonetheless refused to create a “new exception to the physical impact rule.” The Court noted the mother “did not suffer any physical impact” as a result of the hospital’s mishandling of her daughter’s remains and therefore was not entitled to a special exception. “If we do not insist on a workable limiting principle as a prerequisite to recognition of new exceptions to the physical impact rule,” the Court explained, “the exceptions will soon swallow the rule.”