Anyone who has witnessed a serious accident knows how traumatic it can be. Of course, witnessing an accident to a close family member, such as a child or parent, can be all the more traumatic. What most people don’t know is that in Pennsylvania, there is an avenue to recovery for those who suffered psychological and emotional trauma as a result of witnessing a horrible accident. The claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress, or “NIED,” is designed to compensate people who suffered psychological or emotional injuries as a result of witnessing an accident, and the party or parties that negligently caused the accident may be liable to the innocent bystander.
The bystander NIED claim is not without limitations, however. Just because someone has witnessed an accident does not necessarily mean they are automatically permitted to bring an NIED claim. There are two types of bystanders that are permitted to bring an NIED claim. The first type of bystander that is permitted to bring a claim is anyone that was within the “zone of danger” of the accident. Anyone within the “zone of danger” of an accident and experienced fear for their own safety is permitted to bring an NIED claim seeking recovery for the psychological and/or emotional injury suffered by the bystander.
The second type of bystander that is permitted to bring a claim for NIED is one who witnesses an accident to a close family member (i.e., spouse, parent, child or sibling). If the person involved in the accident is a close family member, the bystander may bring a claim for NIED regardless of whether they were within the “zone of danger” at the time of the accident. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted a three-part inquiry to determine whether a bystander located outside the zone of danger is permitted to bring an NIED claim: (1) whether the bystander was located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who was a distance away from it;(2) whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon the bystander from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence; and (3) whether the bystander and the victim were closely related as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship. Unfortunately, it is common that people learn of an accident involving close family members by being notified of the accident and/or injuries by telephone. Under the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s three-part test, this would not allow the bystander to bring a claim for NIED because they did not personally observe the accident and injuries themselves.
Psychological and emotional injuries are just as real as physical injuries. Witnessing a catastrophic accident, especially those involving close family members, can inflict devastating psychological and emotional injuries. In Pennsylvania, these are injuries for which recovery can be sought.