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Is a Bystander Claim Derivative in Massachusetts?

Published in Personal Injury on May 4, 2020

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A traumatic or catastrophic accident might not only affect the direct victim but also anyone who witnessed the event. Witnessing a tragic accident such as a car crash or dog attack could also lead to injuries, including emotional distress and mental anguish. In Massachusetts, it may be possible for a bystander who witnessed an accident to file a claim for his or her damages. In most cases, however, this bystander must have a personal relationship with the victim to have grounds for a claim. Bystander claims also involve several other statewide laws, including direct vs. derivative claims and burdens of proof.

What Is Bystander Liability?

 A bystander liability claim is a type of civil lawsuit in which a bystander who witnessed an accident has the right to hold a defendant liable for causing his or her injuries. Typically, these injuries are emotional. A bystander could bring a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim in Massachusetts against a defendant even if the bystander was not the person directly injured. If the bystander did suffer a physical injury, he or she could bring a direct claim against the defendant instead of a bystander claim. Both types of claims, however, could lead to compensation for the injured bystander.

What Is a Derivative Claim?

 A derivative claim is one with an outcome that will most likely rely on the outcome of the related direct claim. The direct claim could be a car accident lawsuit by an injured pedestrian, for example, while the derivative claim is that of the pedestrian’s sister who witnessed the accident and suffered emotional distress. In this case, whether the sister wins her bystander claim could depend on whether the courts ruled in favor of the victim during the direct pedestrian accident claim. 

 Bystander claims are derivative in Massachusetts. The outcome of the direct lawsuit, therefore, could affect that of the injured bystander’s suit. If the direct lawsuit leads to a negative verdict, the bystander most likely also will not achieve compensation for his or her emotional injuries. If the direct claim against the defendant succeeds, however, the bystander could use this as evidence to support his or her derivative lawsuit.

What Makes a Valid Claim?

 Massachusetts recognizes the rights of bystanders to bring negligent infliction of emotional distress claims after witnessing accidents. However, the Commonwealth has several laws limiting this right. First, the bystander must have had a personal relationship with the victim to be eligible to file. A stranger who does not know the victim of an accident will generally not have the right to file a claim for emotional damages in the state.

 Second, the bystander must have physical symptoms arising from emotional distress. The emotional distress must have caused fatigue, stress, anxiety, nausea or depression, for example. Emotional distress alone, without physical symptoms, will typically not qualify for a bystander cause of action in Massachusetts.

 Third, a bystander who files a claim must prove certain elements to be more likely true than not true about his or her case. The plaintiff must establish the negligent nature of the defendant’s actions. The plaintiff must have evidence of a duty of care owed and a breach of this duty, along with causation for the damages in question. The plaintiff must also demonstrate his or her emotional distress – and related physical harm or symptoms – because of the defendant’s negligence. 

 Finally, the plaintiff must show that a reasonable person would have sustained similar emotional distress in the same situation. A Boston personal injury lawyer can help an injured bystander provide evidence supporting all of the necessary elements of proof in a derivative claim in Massachusetts. The right attorney may be able to obtain financial compensation for the bystander by proving all the necessary requirements, establishing proof of negligence and using a successful direct claim as evidence. A financial award could help a bystander pay for therapies, medical care, lost wages and other expenses related to witnessing a tragic accident in Boston.

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