The “Impact Rule” – When Can Emotional Damages Be Recovered In A Personal Injury Case in Georgia?

In a Georgia personal injury case, the “impact rule” applies.  What this means is that in order to recover for purely emotional damages caused by another person or corporation, the person bringing the claim, the plaintiff, must first prove that there was an impact to his or her body.  A Georgia Court of Appeals case highlights what this means.   In Coon v. The Medical Center, Inc. (2015), a grieving mother filed a complaint seeking damages for emotional distress caused when a hospital mishandled the remains of her stillborn baby.  Thinking she was having a funeral for her deceased child, the mother instead buried a baby that was not hers.  This obviously would cause any parent great emotional distress.  The mother’s claims were for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

On the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Court of Appeals held that because the mother could not prove a physical injury or a pecuniary (monetary) loss, she could not recover for her emotional damages.  In other words, to be able to recover for emotional damages in a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, a civil litigant must prove at least one of these elements:  a physical injury (an impact to the body, even a slight impact) or actual monetary loss resulting from the emotional distress.

The Coon court found that the costs of multiple burials were not directly related to the mother’s emotional distress.  An example of monetary damages that would be related to this emotional distress would be, for example, if she had sought counseling or therapy and had to pay for that counseling. It was not disputed that the mother had some physical injury; she did not.

In a different case involving negligent infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff himself was severely injured in a Georgia trucking accident but also witnessed a good friend die when a tractor trailer collided with the rear of the truck they were riding in.  This plaintiff testified that his emotional injuries stemmed from both witnessing his friend’s death and from his own physical injuries.  In such a case, this plaintiff could allege that he suffered a pecuniary loss if this loss occurred as a result of the negligent infliction of emotional distress.  The proof of pecuniary loss would have to be shown to be related to the emotional distress of witnessing the friend’s death, e.g., a counselor’s notes or testimony that this person was seeking treatment for distress from witnessing a gruesome death.  If this event is never raised with a therapist or counselor, the plaintiff may not be able to recover damages for witnessing this tragic event.

In Coon, on the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the mother would have to prove that the defendant’s conduct was outrageous, for instance, if the hospital intentionally returned the wrong baby to the mother.  Such conduct would be outrageous and would permit this case to go to a jury on the question of damages.  In this case, however, all the mother could prove was that the hospital made a tragic error.  An error or mistake, which can also be called negligent or careless conduct, is never sufficiently outrageous to prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.