• U.S.

Trials: Cured by a Verdict?

3 minute read

The ten-ton truck that rammed into the back of a soft-drink delivery truck in a Detroit suburb two years ago did far more than shatter a load of bottles; it made legal history. When he heard liquid dripping from the broken bottles, said Jack Newby, driver of the soft-drink truck, he was seized with a terrible fear that his gasoline tanks had ruptured. The dripping recalled a wreck he had witnessed years before, when he watched two people burn to death in a fire fed by gasoline. As a result of his fright in the cab of his truck, Newby sank into a fearful, suspicious, irritable state that psychiatrists recognized as psychotic. Claiming that he was unable to work, he sued the other trucking company for $300,000.

Last week a Pontiac, Mich., jury awarded Newby $150,000. According to his lawyers, it was the biggest award ever for emotional injury not accompanied by severe physical injury.

Impact. The law has long recognized claims for emotional disturbances resulting from physical injury, even though there was no demonstrable link between the physical and mental harm. Newby claimed a whiplash injury, and although the connection between his aching neck and his psychosis was exceedingly faint, his case came within the old rule of negligence law, which allowed recovery for emotional injury only if there had been some physical impact.

Judges in negligence cases used to be wary of claims of psychiatric disorders caused by fear alone. In a classic decision in 1896, the New York Court of Appeals held that a woman who was frightened by a recklessly driven team of horses and later suffered a miscarriage could not recover damages—the horses came close, but did not actually touch her. If mere fright became a basis for negligence suits, said the court, “a wide field would be opened for fictitious or speculative claims.” Most other state courts agreed.

Avarice. But changing attitudes toward psychiatry have resulted in changing doctrines in the courts. In a case that became a legal milestone, a ski-lift attendant failed to fasten the safety belt of a nine-year-old girl; she became hysterically frightened and displayed severe emotional symptoms. Explicitly overruling its earlier approach to “mere fright,” the New York Court of Appeals in 1961 upheld an award for damages although the girl had suffered no physical harm whatever.

Such growing leniency of the courts in their consideration of mental injuries is reflected in the lawyer’s gag that defines emotional trauma as “a state of mind precipitated by an accident, stimulated by an attorney, perpetuated by avarice and cured by a verdict.”

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