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What Are Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims in Massachusetts?

Published in Personal Injury on February 4, 2019

Reading Time: 6 minutes

A personal injury claim may arise whenever one party causes a tangible injury or other measurable loss to another. However, it is possible for a civil claim to arise when no physical injury occurred but the victim sustained emotional suffering due to another party’s actions. Anyone who suffers emotional distress from discrimination, non-physical domestic abuse, or other cause in Boston can contact Sweeney Merrigan Law LLP and request a free case evaluation with one of our Boston personal injury attorneys.

What Is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Under Massachusetts Law?

Under Massachusetts law, a Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED) claim is a civil claim in response to one party acting recklessly or negligently that results in significant mental or emotional injury to another party. The emotional injury may seem like a complex way to refer to hurt feelings, but Massachusetts state law sets forth specific criteria for an action to qualify as a NIED and entitle the victim to compensation.

Since the definition of an emotional injury is often broad, the law sets specific limitations to prevent a defendant from facing essentially limitless NIED claims. When an individual’s negligence causes harm to another party, the injured party certainly has a right to pursue compensation for his or her damages, but others in the vicinity may also sustain emotional trauma from the incident and some may qualify for NIED claims.

  • Imagine a pedestrian sees a driver run a red light and strike another pedestrian, causing severe injuries. The passerby attempts CPR to save the victim’s life, but the victim dies from his or her injuries. The person who attempted to help experiences trauma from the scene and struggles with strong feelings of guilt and remorse even though he or she did not personally know the victim.
  • A family is visiting an amusement park and two of the family members get on a ride while the rest of the family waits. A malfunction occurs and severely injures the family members on the ride. The rest of the family witnesses this traumatic incident and struggles with the care for their injured relatives following the incident.
  • A circus tent collapses due to negligent construction, injuring several attendees and causing panic in the crowd. The individuals attending this event may experience shock and trauma due to the panicked nature of the scene while fleeing the collapse or the sight of injured friends and relatives.

In all of these examples, the individuals involved may not have suffered physical harm directly but may still have grounds for NIED claims against the negligent parties in those scenarios. However, there are specific criteria that qualify an individual for a NIED claim under Massachusetts law.

Massachusetts courts generally hold that a person with a close, personal relationship with the victim of a negligent act may have grounds for NIED claim, but an unrelated bystander who witnesses such an act does not. Additionally, Massachusetts law only allows NIED claims for emotional distress that results in physical symptoms.

emotional distress victim

What Are Some Essential Elements of a NIED Claim?

When an individual commits a negligent act and causes injury to another person, there is often potential for his or her negligence to also cause harm to others. Several rules may come into play to determine the validity of a NIED claim.

  • The Impact Rule requires any aspect of the defendant’s negligent act to come into contact with or impact the claimant. For example, the force of an explosion or a pebble striking the claimant would qualify as impacts under this rule. Under the first previous example, the pedestrian who rushed to help the other struck pedestrian may have felt impacts from debris if he or she was close enough to the accident, but he or she does not have a close personal relationship to the victim and would therefore not qualify for a NIED claim in Massachusetts.
  • The Danger Zone Rule requires that a claimant was close enough to the defendant’s negligent act that the claimant faced an immediate danger of physical harm from the act. Following the second previous example, the family waiting for their relatives on the amusement park ride were in the immediate vicinity of the ride and had the opportunity to ride it and suffer injuries as well, therefore they were within the Danger Zone of the incident. Since they are closely related to the direct victims of the incident, they qualify for NIED claims.
  • The Foreseeability Rule is more nebulous; the defendant must have been able to reasonably foresee that his or her conduct had potentially negative consequences. Following the third previous example, the party constructing the circus tent should have foreseen a collapse if they did not erect the tent appropriately, establishing foreseeability. An individual who witnesses a close relative suffer injuries in such a situation would likely have grounds for a NIED claim in Massachusetts.

While some states may require one or more of these rules to apply for a claimant to proceed with a NIED claim, Massachusetts has historically been less generous with the available grounds for a NIED claim. Generally, there are five major criteria for a NIED claim in Massachusetts.

  • The defendant’s actions were negligent. The plaintiff’s attorney must prove the defendant owed a duty of care in the given situation, failed to uphold that duty, and caused the damages in question. The defendant’s actions in a NIED claim generally result in direct harm to one party, and the NIED claimant may be this party or a third party that meets the state’s eligibility requirements for filing NIED claims.
  • The defendant’s negligent actions caused the plaintiff emotional distress. The plaintiff’s attorney may need to prove this by contacting expert witnesses with backgrounds in psychology, psychiatry, or other mental health care professions. The attorney may also provide the plaintiff’s mental health records and counseling notes if necessary, to help prove emotional distress occurred.
  • The defendant’s negligence was the sole cause of the plaintiff’s emotional distress. The evidence must show that the defendant’s negligence directly resulted in the plaintiff’s emotional distress or that the plaintiff’s emotional distress would not have happened but for the defendant’s negligence.
  • Another reasonable person in the same situation would have likely suffered emotional distress. The Massachusetts court will assess whether a plaintiff acted prudently in the situation or if another reasonable person in the same circumstances would have sustained similar damages to the plaintiff’s claimed emotional distress.
  • The plaintiff’s emotional distress resulted in physical harm. In cases involving intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff does not have to prove physical harm resulting from emotional distress.

Was Emotional Distress Directly Caused By the Defendant’s Actions?

It is possible for a defendant’s negligence to cause emotional stress directly to one party or indirectly to another. However, Massachusetts law generally holds that a bystander may only pursue a NIED claim for his or her emotional distress if he or she has a close personal relationship to the direct victim of the defendant’s negligence. This means the claimant must have a familial relationship to the victim of the defendant’s negligence and directly witnessed the defendant’s negligence harm the victim or came upon the victim immediately following the negligent incident.

Proving Emotional Distress

In any civil claim, emotional distress is one of the most difficult types of damages to prove. The claimant must produce some evidence that the event in question resulted in emotional distress. This evidence could take many possible forms.

  • Medical records for mental health treatment, counseling, or psychiatric medication prescriptions for treating acute mental health symptoms from emotional distress. In Massachusetts, a claimant must also prove physical harm resulting from this emotional distress, but the state is quite liberal in the symptoms that qualify. Nervousness, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, or traumatic flashbacks may all constitute physical harm.
  • Testimony from relatives, friends, coworkers, and other individuals who know the claimant well on a personal level and can provide an account of his or her emotional distress following the incident, such as marked changes in personality and mood.
  • Expert witnesses may weigh in on the case and offer their professional interpretations of the claimant’s emotional distress and related symptoms. For example, if a claimant files a NIED claims on the grounds of developing post-traumatic stress disorder with physical symptoms, a psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD treatment can help the court understand the claimant’s symptoms and confirm that anyone in the same situation would face a risk of developing PTSD symptoms.

Succeeding With Your NIED Claim

If a NIED claimant can successfully prove the necessary elements to secure compensation, he or she can secure compensation for all his or her damages related to the emotional distress and related physical symptoms in the claim. For example, a claimant who has PTSD may claim medical expenses related to treating his or her PTSD, lost income from time spent out of work, and pain and suffering compensation.

One of the best methods to ensure a NIED claimant receives compensation is to track any and all expenses related to the claim. The claimant should also keep a record of negative symptoms, new developments, or isolated incidents that help establish a pattern of measurable physical symptoms resulting from emotional distress.

Get Professional Help With Your NIED Claim!

The attorneys at Sweeney Merrigan Law LLP have extensive experience with all types of personal injury claims, including complex legal matters like NIED claims. If you recently witnessed a loved one suffer a traumatic injury, or a negligent party’s actions caused emotional distress that resulted in significant physical symptoms, we can help you determine your options for legal recourse.

For more information, call our law office at (617)-391-9001. Or if you would prefer to email us, then please visit our contact page.

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