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Charlotte Personal Injury: Yes, You Can Recover Damages For Emotional Distress

Feb 2, 2018 - Personal Injury by

emotional distress damages personal injury attorney Charlotte NC

Have you been injured in Charlotte by the negligent or wrongful act of another? Have you been involved in an accident caused by falling debris, or did a physician commit medical malpractice against you or a family member in Mecklenburg County? Whatever the event — no matter how small — the results can be traumatic and often cause emotional distress and hardship. North Carolina citizens who have been injured often ask themselves: “Can I recover for emotional distress if I have been injured?” The answer is “yes.” For help, call the experienced personal injury lawyers at Brown, Moore & Associates.  

Here is what you need to know.

North Carolina Emotional Distress — Two Types

There are two types of emotional distress: (1) emotional distress caused negligently; and (2) emotional distress caused intentionally or maliciously. This article will address emotional distress suffered as the result of a defendant’s negligent actions, not a defendant’s intentional or malicious actions.

Under North Carolina law, all personal injury claims are governed by the law of negligence. Negligence law allows you to seek reimbursement and compensation in a court of law for all of your injuries and damages resulting from the collision or incident. As a hypothetical, maybe a piece of concrete fell off a building and smashed into your car? The concrete caused damage to your car—you can seek to recover damages for the damage to your car. The falling concrete also hit and broke your arm—you can seek to recover personal injury damages for your past and future medical bills and treatment as well as the pain and suffering you endured as a result of your broken arm. The whole event caused you tremendous mental anguish and emotional trauma—you can seek to recover for that as well.

Charlotte Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

In Charlotte, in addition to suing for damage to your property, your physical injuries, and lost wages resulting from a collision or incident, if the collision or incident caused you severe mental anguish or emotional trauma, you can also bring a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). The bar for this type of claim is fairly high, but if presented correctly, its value should not be discounted.

To prove NIED, a plaintiff must prove:

(1) the defendant negligently engaged in conduct;

(2) it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct would cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress or mental anguish;

(3) the conduct did, in fact, cause the plaintiff mental anguish; and

(4) that the emotional distress was severe — mere temporary fright, disappointment or regret will not suffice.

In practice, the first element is actually broken into two parts: (1) proof that duty is owed and (2) that the duty was breached. Failure to prove a “duty owed” will be fatal to a claim for NIED. See, for example, Smith-Price v. Charter Behavioral Health Sys., 164 N.C. App. 349 (2004) (dismissal of the case on summary judgment upheld because there was no evidence of duty owed; dismissal of NIED claim was required because an essential element of the claim (duty owed) was not present).

North Carolina courts have defined “severe emotional distress” as any emotional or mental disorder or any other type of severe and disabling emotional or mental condition which may generally be recognized and diagnosed by professionals trained to do so. Examples include:

  • Neurosis;
  • Psychosis;
  • Chronic depression; and
  • Phobia.

See Johnson v. Ruark Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates, P.A., 327 N.C. 283 (1990). Ruark is the leading North Carolina case with respect to NIED. In that case, the court allowed a mother and father to seek recovery for NIED where a hospital and doctors were charged with malpractice resulting in the death and stillborn birth of their baby. One can hardly imagine anything more emotionally traumatic.

Charlotte NIED: What is “Foreseeable?”

With respect to whether the plaintiff’s mental anguish is “reasonably foreseeable,” the Ruark Court held that determining foreseeability was a fact-based question and depends on if the mental anguish is being experienced by the victim or being experienced by a third party concerned about another.

The Ruark case is a good example of both. With respect to the mother, she was a “direct victim” of the medical malpractice which resulted in the stillborn birth of her child. It was “reasonably foreseeable” that she would experience mental anguish.

The father, on the other hand, experienced mental anguish because of his care and worry both for his wife and child. The Court offered several factors that a jury and trial court might consider when NIED is asserted by a third-party:

  • Plaintiff’s proximity to the negligent act;
  • Relationship between the plaintiff and the other person for whose welfare the plaintiff is concerned; and
  • Did the plaintiff personally observe the negligent act?

In the Ruark case, the Court held that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that both mother and father would experience mental anguish.

Charlotte NIED: Physical Impact is NOT Required

Many states require a plaintiff to prove the mental anguish and severe emotional distress was accompanied by some “physical impact” or some physical injury to recover for NIED. The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected this requirement. In North Carolina, a plaintiff need not allege or prove a physical impact or physical injury to recover for NIED.

Charlotte NIED: Physical Manifestation is NOT Required

Further many states require that, to be considered “severe,” the mental anguish must manifest itself in some physical manner like weight gain, irregular heartbeat, tics or tremors, etc. This too was rejected by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and thus, in North Carolina a plaintiff need not allege or prove a physical manifestation of his or her severe emotional distress to recover for NIED.

Contact an Experienced Charlotte, North Carolina Personal Injury Attorney Today!

If you have suffered a personal injury in an accident in Charlotte, North Carolina, call the personal injury attorneys at Brown, Moore & Associates.  If you are experiencing mental anguish because of the accident or if a loved one is experiencing emotional distress, call today. Contact our Charlotte office today to schedule a free consultation with one of our dedicated personal injury attorneys—we are here to help.