Spade v. Lynn

February 13, 2006

The case calls for a consideration of the real ground upon which the liability or non-liability of a defendant guilty of negligence in a case like the present depends.  The exemption from liability for mere fright, terror, alarm, or anxiety does not rest on the assumption that these do not constitute an actual injury.  They do in fact deprive one of enjoyment and of comfort, cause real suffering, and to a greater or less extent disqualify one for the time being from doing the duties of life.  If these results flow from a wrongful or negligent act, a recovery therefore cannot be denied on the ground that the injury is fanciful and not real.  Nor can it be maintained that these results may not be the direct and immediate consequence of the negligence.  Danger excites alarm.  Few people are wholly insensible to the emotions caused by imminent danger, though some are less affected than others. 

It must also be admitted that a timid or sensitive person may suffer not only in mind, but also in body, from such a cause.  Great emotion may and sometimes does produce physical effects.  The action of the heart, the circulation of the blood, the temperature of the body, as well as the nerves and the appetite, may all be affected.  A physical injury may be directly traceable to fright, and so may be caused by it.  We cannot say, therefore, that such consequences may not flow proximately from unintentional negligence, and if compensation in damages may be recovered for a physical injury so caused, it is hard on principle to say why there should not also be a recovery for the mere mental suffering when not accompanied by any perceptible physical effects.

It would seem therefore that the real reason for refusing damages sustained from mere fright must be something different; and it probably rests on the ground that in practice it is impossible satisfactorily to administer any other rule.  The law must be administered in the courts according to general rules.  Courts will aim to make these rules as just as possible, bearing in mind that they are to be of general application.  But as the law is a practical science, having to do with the affairs of life, any rule is unwise if in its general application it will not as a usual result serve the purposes of justice.  A new rule cannot be made for each case, and there must therefore be a certain generality in rules of law, which in particular cases may fail to meet what would be desirable if the single case were alone to be considered. 

Rules of law respecting the recovery of damages are framed with reference to the just rights of both parties; not merely what it might be right for an injured person to receive, to afford just compensation for his injury, but also what it is just to compel the other party to pay.  One cannot always look to others to make compensation for injuries received.  Many accidents occur, the consequences of which the sufferer must bear alone.  And in determining the rules of law by which the right to recover compensation for unintended injury from others is to be governed, regard must chiefly be paid to such conditions as are usually found to exist.  Not only the transportation of passengers and the running of trains, but the general conduct of business and of the ordinary affairs of life, must be done on the assumption that persons who are liable to be affected thereby are not peculiarly sensitive, and are of ordinary physical and mental strength.  If, for example, a traveller is sick or infirm, delicate in health, specially nervous or emotional, liable to be upset by slight causes, and therefore requiring precautions which are not usual or practicable for travellers in general, notice should be given, so that, if reasonably practicable, arrangements may be made accordingly, and extra care may be observed.  But, as a general rule, a carrier of passengers is not bound to anticipate or to guard against an injurious result which would only happen to a person of peculiar sensitiveness.  This limitation of liability for injury of another description is intimated in Allsop v. Allsop.  One may be held bound to anticipate and guard against the probable consequences to ordinary people, but to carry the rule of damages further imposes an undue measure of responsibility upon those who are guilty only of unintentional negligence.  The general rule limiting damages in such a case to the natural and probable consequences of the acts done is of wide application, and has often been expressed and applied.

The law of negligence in its special application to cases of accidents had received great development in recent years.  The number of actions brought is very great.  This should lead courts well to consider the grounds on which claims for compensation properly rest, and the necessary limitations of the right to recover.  We remain satisfied with the rule that there can be no recovery for fright, terror, alarm, anxiety, or distress of mind, if these are unaccompanied by some physical injury; and if this rule is to stand, we think it should also be held that there can be no recovery for such physical injuries as may be caused solely by such mental disturbance, where there is no injury to the person from without.  The logical vindication of this rule is, that it is unreasonable to hold persons who are merely negligent bound to anticipate and guard against fright and the consequences of fright; and that this would open a wide door for unjust claims, which could not successfully be met. 

It is hardly necessary to add that this decision does not reach those classes of actions where an intention to cause mental distress or to hurt the feelings is shown, or is reasonably to be inferred, as, for example, in cases of seduction, slander, malicious prosecution, or arrest, and some others.  Nor do we include cases of acts done with gross carelessness or recklessness, showing utter indifference to such consequences, when they must have been in the actor’s mind.

Spade v. Lynn, 168 Mass. 285, 287-290 (1897).

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