Dziokonski v. Babineau

February 2, 2006

The scope of duty in tort is often defined in terms of the reasonable foreseeability of the harm to the plaintiff resulting from the defendant’s negligent conduct. Sometimes, liability is predicated on a judicial characterization that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, or that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, or that the defendant is liable for the natural and probable consequences of his conduct. Each of these characterizations is actually a conclusion and is not a helpful guide to arriving at the proper answer in a given set of circumstances. We think reasonable foreseeability is a proper starting point in determining whether an actor is to be liable for the consequences of his negligence. Measured by this standard, it is clear that it is reasonably foreseeable that, if one negligently operates a motor vehicle so as to injure a person, there will be one or more persons sufficiently attached emotionally to the injured person that he or they will be affected.  The problem, however, is that the class of persons vicariously affected by the tortfeasor’s conduct may be large. This concern has prompted many courts to deny all liability. They perceive no logical place at which to impose reasonable limits on the scope of a defendant’s liability without going to the full extent of reasonable foreseeability, which would produce, as they see it, a risk of liability disproportionate to the defendant’s culpability. The result has been that, as a matter of policy, courts have decided not to give full effect to reasonable foreseeability and have adopted limitations on liability, such as the impact rule or the zone of danger rule.

Every effort must be made to avoid arbitrary lines which “unnecessarily produce incongruous and indefensible results.”  The focus should be on underlying principles.  In cases of this character, there must be both a substantial physical injury and proof that the injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence. Beyond this, the determination whether there should be liability for the injury sustained depends on a number of factors, such as where, when, and how the injury, to the third person entered into the consciousness of the claimant, and what degree there was of familial or other relationship between the claimant and the third person. It does not matter in practice whether these factors are regarded as policy considerations imposing limitations on the scope of reasonable foreseeability, or as factors bearing on the determination of reasonable foreseeability itself. The fact is that, in cases of this character, such factors are relevant in measuring the limits of liability for emotionally based injuries resulting from a defendant’s negligence. In some instances, it will be clear that the question is properly one for the trier of fact, while in others the claim will fall outside the range of circumstances within which there may be liability.

With these considerations in mind, we conclude that the allegations concerning a parent who sustains substantial physical harm as a result of severe mental distress over some peril or harm to his minor child caused by the defendant’s negligence state a claim for which relief might be granted, where the parent either witnesses the accident or soon comes on the scene while the child is still there.

– Dziokonski v. Babineau, 380 N.E.2d 1295 (Mass. 1978).

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