Georgia Court of Appeals Holds Plaintiff May Recover Emotional Damages after Motor Vehicle Accident

Although accidents often lead to injury beyond physical harm, courts have historically been adverse to permitting damages for non-physical injuries, in particular emotional injury. For instance, courts in Georgia have often adhered to the “impact rule,” which permits “recovery for emotional distress [only if] there is some impact on the plaintiff, and that impact must be a physical injury.” Ryckeley v. Callaway, 261 Ga. 828 (412 S.E.2d 826) (1992). However, in its recent decision in Oliver v. McDade, the court took another step away from the harsh outcomes associated with application of the impact rule and held that a person may obtain recovery for emotional injury, as long as the emotional distress is recoverable pursuant to the pecuniary loss rule. The facts behind McDade are particularly sad.
The plaintiff in this case was in the passenger seat of his truck while his friend drove along a stretch of I-16. They were returning from a dirt car race event in which the friend had competed and were hauling the race car in a friend’s trailer, which was hitched to the truck. After merging onto the interstate, the friend noticed that something on the trailer may not have been properly secured and pulled over to the shoulder to correct the error. While the friend was fixing the problem, a tractor-trailer swerved onto the shoulder and struck both the plaintiff’s truck and the friend’s trailer. The friend’s body was crushed between the trailer and truck, and he died instantly. In addition, the plaintiff, who remained in the truck, was thrown against the side. The rear window of the truck cracked as a result of impact, and the friend’s blood and body tissue was propelled onto the plaintiff’s body. The plaintiff got out of the truck to inspect and discovered his friend’s mangled body laying partially in the road. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered physical injury to his neck, back, and knees. In addition, the plaintiff suffers from headaches, insomnia, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The plaintiff sought help for these issues and was diagnosed with major depression, for which he was prescribed medication.
Typically, the impact rule precludes recovery for emotional injury unless there is:  “(1) a physical impact to the plaintiff; (2) the physical impact causes physical injury to the plaintiff;  and (3) the physical injury to the plaintiff causes the plaintiff’s mental suffering or emotional distress.” Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 533 S.E.2d 82, 85 (2000). In this case, the defendants sought summary judgment for any of the plaintiff’s claims based on emotional distress arising from witnessing his friend’s death, since such emotional harm would not satisfy prong three of the impact rule test and would thus not be recoverable. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was inappropriate. First, the court noted that neither the plaintiff’s complaint nor his deposition testimony distinguished the emotional distress arising from viewing his friend’s death from the emotional distress arising from his own injuries. Accordingly, there was at least a question of fact regarding the source of the emotional injury, precluding summary judgment. Second, and more unexpectedly, the court held that even if it were possible to distinguish the source of the emotional distress based on the already adduced evidence, the plaintiff could still recover based on application of the pecuniary loss rule. The court relied on Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Lam, which held that “a plaintiff may . . . recover damages for emotional distress flowing from a defendant’s negligence, notwithstanding the absence of physical injury. But these damages are recoverable only if the plaintiff has suffered a pecuniary loss and has suffered an injury to the person, albeit not physical.” 248 Ga. App. 134 (2001). Accordingly, the plaintiff in this action could recover for his emotional distress as long as he suffered some form of pecuniary loss and suffered an injury to his person, although that injury need not be physical.
Although the court provided an opinion that on its face seems to be applying precedent in a straightforward manner, McDade dramatically broadens the ability for litigants to get recovery for emotional injury. If you’ve recently been in a motor vehicle accident or sustained some other form of serious injury and are suffering with associated emotional distress, it is imperative to get the timely advice of counsel about your legal options. The Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune is staffed with Atlanta personal injury attorneys with considerable expertise in this area of law. If you would like a free case consultation, please click here or call 1-800-487-8669.

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