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Can Tennessee Parents Sue Negligent Doctors for the Emotional Trauma of Watching Their Child Die?


Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NEID) is a personal injury claim that is usually based on witnessing a traumatic event. For instance, if a mother and child are in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, and the mother watches the child die, she could sue the driver for negligent infliction of emotional distress. And while this sounds fairly straightforward, in practice NEID claims are often difficult for courts to handle.

Court Holds NEID Claims Do Not Require “Sudden” Accident

Indeed, a divided three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently struggled with a NEID case rooted in medical malpractice as opposed to a car accident. The majority ruled that the parents of a deceased 10-year-old girl could proceed with their NEID claim after a trial judge ruled in favor of the defendant hospital. The Court’s decision could open the door for future NEID suits against negligent health care providers.

The child was admitted to the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit for “septic shock related to influenza,” i.e. the flu. According to the parents’ lawsuit, the doctors failed to provide “reasonable medical care and treatment and services” to their child. Notably, the parents alleged the hospital failed to perform an ECG or obtain a cardiology consultation. Two days after their daughter’s admission, they witnessed her go into “cardiac arrest.” More than a week later, the child suffered a stroke and brain death. The parents decided to withdraw life support and the child died.

The hospital has denied committing any malpractice. Furthermore, the hospital argued the parents “had not witnessed an injury-producing event,” giving rise to a NEID claim. More specifically, the hospital said the parents did not witness their child’s stroke–the event that actually precipitated her death–nor the medical staff’s efforts to revive her after her cardiac arrest.

The trial court agreed with the hospital that the parents “were not in sufficient proximity to the injury-producing event” to support a case for NEID.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. The majority held that the hospital’s “alleged negligence in failing to provide medical care to the child in the hours leading up to her cardiac arrest” could itself be deemed a traumatic event for purposes of a NEID claim. Put another way, the fact that the parents were forced to watch while the hospital staff made multiple mistakes that culminated in their daughter’s cardiac arrest–which she never recovered from–is just as much of a traumatic “event” as if she had been suddenly killed in a car accident.

The Court of Appeals was not unanimous in its ruling. One judge dissented. This may suggest further appellate review by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the future. But as the law stands for now, a personal injury claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress does not depend on witnessing a “sudden and traumatic” event.

Do You Need to Speak With a Knoxville Personal Injury Attorney?

If you have suffered physical, mental, or emotional injuries due to someone else’s negligence, you need to speak with an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer who can help you determine your legal right to compensation. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville to schedule a consultation today.



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