Georgia Rule on Emotional Distress Claims, the Impact Rule

In Georgia, you cannot seek damages based on emotional distress stemming from another’s negligent act if there was no physical impact to you. Georgia is in the minority of states that follow this illogical “impact rule.”Lee v. State Farm Mutual Ins. Co., 272 Ga. 583 (2000)

This situation most often arises when parents or spouses are in a serious car accident in Georgia and one of the occupants seeks to recover for the emotional scarring of watching a child or loved one die or suffer injury. The Court has so far stuck to their illogical test requiring that the person seeking to recover for emotional distress must also have been physically impacted by the same collision. Although the decision does not talk about relationships outside of parent and child, I believe that the Court would allow a first degree relations claim. Lee v. State Farm Insurance Co., 272 Ga. 583 (2000)

The illogical rule goes like this; you cannot recover damages unless: (1) there is a physical impact to you; (2) the physical impact causes physical injury to you; and (3) the physical injury to you causes you mental suffering or distress. It used to be even worse. Before that decision, the emotional/mental anguish had to stem from your own injuries rather than watching your loved one suffer. Now, at least, the recovery can be for watching their pain or loss.

The logic cited by the Court is that the rule prevents a flood of litigation from every bystander at a gory crash and from fraudulent claims. How the expansion of this rule to protecting only loved ones at the scene would hurt society is beyond me and this was recognized in the dissent in Lee. Like it or not, that is the law until I can get the majority to adopt the minority’s thinking.

There is one exception to this harsh impact requirement, the “pecuniary loss” exception. This can provide a “workaround” on liability. Established in the Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Lam, 248 Ga.App. 134 (2001) decision, the Court found that where the passenger was in a car accident and the car was damaged, they could seek a recover for purely mental (not even a bruise) injuries. The logic was that damage to property is a separate tort, a trespass to property. That separate tort can support the claim for mental injury on its own.

Note that the property damage cannot be lost income or medical expenses. Grizzle v. Norsworthy, 292 Ga. App. 303 (2008). There must literally be damage to some piece of personal property. How far the Court will stretch that definition remains to be seen.

In 2015, there was a major decision from the Georgia Supreme Court that seemed to sweep aside the notion that to trigger the pecuniary loss rule, the plaintiff had to suffer economic harm other than the medical bills they incur for suffering from depression or other mental harms. In Oliver et al. v. McDade et al., two friends had stopped a truck on the side of the road to fix a problem with the small trailer they were towing. A tractor-trailer came along and crushed one man, spraying body parts onto the plaintiff. The Plaintiff also sustained a serious physical injury. The facts are more thoroughly explored in the appeals court case that was affirmed.

Initially, this plaintiff would be able to proceed under the impact rule, but he would be blocked for not being a family member. The lawyers for the plaintiff proceeded under the pecuniary loss rule, apparently arguing that his pecuniary loss was the medical care he received. I don’t know why they did not argue that his clothes were destroyed in the crash as that would have closed any debate. Nonetheless, this decision finally is starting to erode the idiocy of the impact rule.