Monday, July 11, 2022

Claim For Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Dismissed Where Plaintiffs' Distress Arose Later, Long After the Physical Impact

In the case of Russell v. Educ. Comm’n For Foreign Med. Graduates, No. 2:18-CV-05629-JDW (E.D. Pa. May 19, 2022 Wolson, J.) (Mem. Op.), the court addressed a unique issue with regard to a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress in a medical malpractice setting.

This case involved a class of plaintiffs who had received treatment from an individual who had allegedly used fraudulent documents to assert that he was a medical doctor who had completed all of the requirements to practice medicine. This person had been certified by the Defendant commission as a valid doctor.

The Plaintiffs in the class had received treatment from the individual between 2012 and 2016.

Thereafter, the Plaintiffs learned about the individual’s identity in 2017 and 2018.

The Plaintiffs filed suit against the Defendant commission who had incorrectly certified the individual as a valid member of the medical profession. In that Complaint, the Plaintiffs asserted claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress as a part of a class action involving numerous Plaintiffs.

The court in this matter confirmed that Pennsylvania Supreme Court had not addressed the particular issue, that is, whether Plaintiffs could raise a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim when they learned new information about some previous event.

The court in this Russell case stated that, under Pennsylvania law, Plaintiffs had been limited in their ability to pursue negligent infliction of emotional distress claims given that the court had required Plaintiff to suffer physical impact, be in a zone of danger, observe a tortious physical injury to a close relative, or to cases where the Defendant had a special contractual or fiduciary duty owed to the Plaintiff. 

The court additionally noted that the only cases that had relaxed the requirements that the emotional distress at issue be contemporaneous with a physical impact were those cases involving an exposure to disease.

In this Russell case, the Plaintiff alleged that they suffered physical impacts when they received medical treatment from the individual.

However, the court noted that the emotional distress did not accompany that impact. Rather, the alleged emotional distress arose later when the Plaintiffs learned about the individual’s arrest and about his background. The court additionally noted that, between the physical impact and the gathering of the knowledge about the individual’s arrest and background, there was no ongoing threat or risk that caused any of the Plaintiffs’ distress.

Rather, the alleged emotional distress of the Plaintiffs was a product of their re-conceiving their memories in light of the new information gathered.

Judge Wolson in this Russell case predicted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would not recognize a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim under these types of facts. The court noted that, while the Plaintiffs' alleged emotional trauma was real, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had repeatedly made clear that not everyone who experiences an emotional trauma has a legal remedy under Pennsylvania law.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.  The Court's companion Order can be viewed HERE.

Source: “Digest of Recent Opinions.” Pennsylvania Law Weekly (June 7, 2022).

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