Bystander Claims in California: How Close is Close Enough?


By: Emily Williams

Witnessing the occurrence of a serious injury or death to a friend or a loved one is likely to cause emotional distress, even absent any physical injury to the bystander. However, in California, in order to have a valid claim for negligent inflection of emotional distress (NIED), there must be a sufficiently close relationship between the bystander and the victim.

Valid NIED bystander claims in California are commonly referred to as Dillon v. Legg claims. In Dillon v. Legg, the California Supreme Court reversed a lower court dismissal of a bystander’s claim, where a mother witnessed the death of her child. See generally, Dillon v. Legg, 68 Cal. 2d 728 (1968). In so doing, the Dillon court held that courts should take into account whether the victim and bystander were “closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.” See id. at 740-741. Other factors to be taken into account included the bystander’s location and whether the distress resulted from “sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident.” See id.

The Dillon court did not explain in much detail the definition of “closely related.” As such, courts were largely on their own to interpret the language and apply it to different relations. E.g., see Trapp v. Schuyler Constr., 149 Cal. App. 3d 1140, 1143 (1983) (first cousins who did not live together could not recover); See also Kriventsov v. San Rafael Taxicabs, 186 Cal. App. 3d 1445, 1149-1150 (1986) (uncle living in same household as nephew could recover); See also Elden v. Sheldon 46 Cal. 3d 267, 277 (1988) (unmarried cohabitant/de facto spouse could not recover).

Then, in Thing v. La Chusa, the California Supreme Court again attempted to clarify what type of relationship is close enough, explaining that “absent exceptional circumstances, recovery should be limited to relatives residing in the same household, or parents, siblings, children, and grandparents of the victim.” Thing v. La Chusa, 48 Cal. 3d 644, 668 n.10 (1989).  Thing v. La Chusa still left open the issue of whether “exceptional circumstances” could allow recovery for non-relatives. A California Court of Appeals case, interpreting Thing v. La Chusa, held that theexceptional circumstanceslanguage does not permit recovery for non-relatives. Rodriguez v. Kirchhoefel, 128 Cal. App. 4th 427, 433-34 (2005); See also King v. United States, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3828, *28 (C.D. Cal. January 11, 2016).

Accordingly, California courts generally define “closely related” in a narrow way, with credence given to the traditional family. The policy behind this approach may have been prudent at one point in time. However, in today’s world, the traditional family unit is becoming less common. More and more couples cohabitate but chose not to marry. And, the distinction between family and friends is shrinking. Therefore, as much as the courts attempt to create a one size fits all rule, life – and the law – is just not that simple.

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