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The Case for Emotional Damages in Serious Accidents

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Beverly Hills, CAThere’s more than one way to suffer personal injury as a result of a serious accident. A 1968 landmark court decision on the right to financial claims for emotional distress related to serious accidents is reported to be one of the most influential California decisions ever made.

Respected attorney Steve Glickman, from Glickman & Glickman, has expertise on the often-cited Dillon v. Legg decision and has represented clients involved in claims for emotional damages in accidents. The cases most often are the result of someone in a serious accident witnessing a close relative being injured or killed.

“The person making the claim must be a close family member for you to be injured emotionally,” explains Glickman. “That’s the test for California law based on Dillon v. Legg.

“But what if it is a lifelong friend that was injured or killed, someone you have known since you were five years old and you have grown up together and you witness your lifelong friend being injured?” says Glickman, posing a rhetorical question.
“That is going to cause severe emotional distress, but the law says you have no case because it has to be a close family member.”


In that case, a plaintiff can make an argument for “direct liability for emotional distress as opposed to bystander liability,” says Glickman. “This means the plaintiff can collect for emotional distress even if you are not a close family member.”

Consider this case in which the court recognized emotional damages for non-family members.

A tractor-trailer rig separated and collided head-on with a car carrying four people. The wife was driving while her husband sat in the passenger seat and two friends sat in the back. A metal beam fell off the tractor-trailer rig and plunged through the driver’s side, decapitated the wife and impaled the male passenger sitting directly behind her.

“Obviously, the husband can sue for witnessing his wife injured,” says Glickman. “But what about the two passengers in the back?

“The law now says that as long as you are a victim of the gross negligence, and as in this case a victim of the actual impact, you can sue for the emotional distress related to the accident,” explains Glickman. “That means even if you are involved in an accident with someone even if they are not a close family member, you can collect for your severe emotional distress.”

However, there are limits to bystander emotional distress claims. For example, someone may be a witness to a horrific crash and be left with nightmare images that last a lifetime.

“The only two theories recognized in California is the close family member bystander or you have to be in ‘the zone of danger as a direct victim’ to make a claim,” adds Glickman.

“If you’re in a train crash and witness people being injured even if you’re not injured,” says Glickman “you can make an emotional distress claim.

“If you’re standing near the tracks and see horrible images of people being hurt, there is no claim available,” notes Glickman.

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