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Understanding Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress And The Impact Rule

A drunk driver swerves off the road, hitting and killing a girl walking along the sidewalk. The girl’s mother, hearing the impact of the accident, runs to the scene of the accident to find her daughter’s lifeless body. The mother is so overcome with shock and grief at the sight that she collapses and dies on the spot.

Can the drunk driver be sued for causing the mother’s death?

For a very long time in Florida, the answer was no because of something called the Impact Rule. The impact rule stated that before someone can recover for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another, the emotional distress needs to be caused by a physical impact.

In the example above, the drunk driver would certainly be subject to multiple civil and criminal liabilities stemming from the death of the daughter, but under the Impact Rule, he would not be liable for the emotional distress that led to the mother’s death because the mother never suffered a physical impact.

Florida’s laws concerning the Impact Rule has evolved significantly over the years, and the interplay between the Impact Rule and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) has grown rather complicated.

Exceptions To The Impact Rule

Unlike most other states, Florida still adheres to the Impact Rule, but has carved out exceptions over the years to accommodate situations like the example above.

  • The Champion Exception – The example above was a real case called Champion v. Gray. To deal with such situations, the Florida Supreme Court modified the Impact Rule to allow recovery for emotional distress without impact in cases where:

    1) the person suffering emotional distress also suffers significant physical injury;
    2) the physical injury is caused by the emotional distress;
    3) the emotional distress is caused by negligent physical injury to another,
    4) the other person and the person suffering emotional distress have a close and personal relationship; and
    5) the person suffering emotional distress was involved in some way in the event that caused the other person physical injury.

  • Zell v. Meek – In this case, the Florida Supreme Court further carved away at the Impact Rule, holding that the physical injury does not have to occur immediately after the incident causing the emotional distress.

  • Willis v. Gami Golden Glades – In this case, the Florida Supreme Court held that if the person suffering emotional distress was “touched,” even if the physical contact wouldn’t be considered an “impact,” the Impact Rule does not apply, and the person may recover for emotional distress even without a physical manifestation of the emotional distress.

The Impact Rule and its various exceptions in Florida make negligent infliction of emotional distress claims a legal labyrinth. If you’ve suffered emotional distress from an accident, or from witnessing an accident suffered by a loved one, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer to navigate the complexities of an NIED claim.