The Law of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in California and Its Role When Your Loved One Was Hurt in a Serious Crash

The Law of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in California and Its Role When Your Loved One Was Hurt in a Serious Crash

The damaging effects of an auto accident be wide-ranging, affecting numerous people. Sometimes, as a recent injury accident case from Riverside illustrates, some of the people harmed by a driver's negligence may not be physically at the scene of the crash at all. Whether you were the person injured in the crash -- or you saw or heard your loved one's serious injury accident -- you have the potential to hold the negligent driver liable for the harm they caused you. A knowledgeable Santa Barbara auto accident lawyer can be an integral part of your pursuit of justice. 

Lawyer for Auto Accident in Santa Barbara

The woman injured in the Riverside crash, M.V., was driving to a realtor's office while she was on the phone with her mother, who provided her with directions. As the daughter entered an intersection, she was struck by another vehicle. The mother was still on the call when she heard "sounds of an explosive metal-on-metal vehicular crash; shattering glass; and rubber tires skidding or dragging across asphalt."

The mother remained on the line but heard nothing for an extended time. Eventually, a male emergency responder ordered the mother to stop speaking so that he could try "to find a pulse." 

The daughter survived and later sued seeking recovery for her injuries. The mother, however, filed her own lawsuit under the legal theory of "negligent infliction of emotional distress." 

Here in California, the Supreme Court has established three requirements for a bystander to be eligible to recover compensation for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Those criteria are:

(1) a close relationship to the injured person,

(2) presence "at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurs," and

(3) the suffering of "serious emotional distress" as a result.

What it Means to Be 'Present'

Previous California court rulings have carefully limited what it means to be "present" at the scene of the accident. A 2002 ruling made it clear that "someone who hears an accident but does not then know it is causing injury to a relative does not have a viable claim for [negligent infliction of emotional distress], even if the missing knowledge is acquired moments later." However, that court also clarified that "visual perception" of the accident in question isn't required; a plaintiff may have a viable case if she contemporaneously perceived through other senses that the accident caused serious harm to her loved one.

That was what the mother in the Riverside case alleged. She asserted that, through the modern technology of cell phones, she was "present" at the scene and was contemporaneously aware of what had happened to her daughter. She heard what she argued were the unmistakable sounds of a major auto collision, followed by a silence that told her daughter was so seriously hurt that she could not speak. This, according to the appeals court, was sufficient to establish the mother's "presence" at the scene.

Various forms of modern technology can be used to establish this requirement. In a 2020 case, the Court of Appeal revived the negligent infliction of emotional distress case of two Redondo Beach parents who watched a home health nurse beat their 2-year-old son live over the mother's phone. That "virtual presence" via livestream was enough to qualify as "present" for purposes of the parents' lawsuit.       

John N. Frye, Auto Accident Attorney near Santa Barbara, CA area
 John N. Frye Auto Accident Lawyer in Santa Barbara

The damage that an auto accident causes can be very wide-ranging, harmfully impacting not just those inside the vehicles, but their loved ones as well. The knowledgeable personal injury attorney in Santa Barbara at the law firm of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos, LLP have many years of experience successfully helping people harmed across a full spectrum of vehicle accident-related cases, and we're eager to discuss how we can help you. 

Contact one of our helpful attorneys at 805-617-1365 or through our website to get a free case consultation today.


Address: 411 Borel Ave #500, San Mateo, CA 94402
Phone: (650) 419-0473
Fax: (805)-617-1365


Thank you so much for all of your legal help on my case. I’ve really enjoyed working with you and your professional team including Lisa and Mavis. I also appreciate your efforts in reaching a settlement on my behalf. I will definitely refer my clients and friends to your firm they are in need of legal representation in the future. Regards.



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