Multiple news outlets covered the infamous tent collapse in Lancaster Fairgrounds, New Hampshire. USAToday reported that the tent killed a father and his daughter, in addition to injuring thirty-two more people. The accident, which took place in 2015, has led to a string of lawsuits, only a few of which have recently reached a settlement. Former technicians for Walker International described a terrifying scene in which winds reached sixty miles per hour. Powerful winds quickly brought the tent down on itself. The accident left scores of witnesses traumatized, injured, or both. The daughter of a woman who was struck in the head by a pole said what many spectators likely felt: “I’ll never go to a circus again.”
A court has yet to decide whether this tragedy was the result of negligence. While dozens of injured individuals have sued for compensation, is there a basis for individuals that weren’t injured, but witnessed the injuries of others? Suppose that a physically uninjured person who has witnessed the tragedy is so emotionally traumatized that he or she actually develops physical symptoms. Can a person in such a situation recover monetary damages under a theory that the negligent party inflicted emotional distress on the audience member?
Tough Standards for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in Massachusetts
A lawsuit alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) essentially alleges that the negligent actions of one person inflicted or caused another person to suffer emotional distress. Sometimes emotional distress can manifest itself through physical symptoms and illnesses, although it is possible that emotional distress exists even without corresponding physical symptoms.
Under the facts of the hypothetical posed above, the audience member could potentially succeed in her suit. Massachusetts allows monetary damages for NIED, but the claim must meet certain requirements. The seminal case in establishing those requirements is Migliori v. Airborne Freight Corporation. Therein, the plaintiff Mr. Migliori either came upon or witnessed an accident in which a negligent van driver hit a pedestrian whom he did not know. Mr. Migliori attempted CPR on the injured pedestrian; however, the pedestrian eventually died. Mr. Migliori was severely affected by this incident, blaming himself for failing to save the pedestrian’s life. Despite Mr. Migliori’s emotional distress, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that there was no familial or close “pre-existing relationship” between Mr. Migliori and the pedestrian and thus Mr. Migliori could not recover damages against the van driver (who worked for Airborne Freight Corporation) for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In establishing this rule, the Massachusetts courts were concerned about the potential limitless liability of negligent parties. For instance, without the requirement that there be a close family or other pre-existing relationship between the injured party and the third party witness, a negligent person might find him- or herself facing hundreds of NIED claims.
Therefore, returning to the hypothetical situation set forth above, if the witness in the audience was a parent to, child of, or spouse of one of the injured individuals, then a claim for NIED arguably exists and the witness may be able to recover. Additionally, because the accident encompassed a closed area, in which a significant amount of audience members were injured, unrelated spectators may have a claim as well. This claim originates in the risk of injury that the unrelated audience members were exposed to, and the physical symptoms that they may have developed as a result.
Contact an Experienced Attorney
Because personal injury claims like NIED are often dependent on the particular facts of a case, it is advisable that an injured person consult with a skilled personal injury attorney to review the facts of his or her case and discuss what damages might be available. Contact us today at (888) 251-7535 or (508) 755-7535 for a free consultation if you or a loved one has been injured by the negligence of another person.