For the First Time, CT Supreme Court Allows Bystander Emotional Distress Claims in Med Mal Case
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For the First Time, CT Supreme Court Allows Bystander Emotional Distress Claims in Med Mal Case

May 5, 2015

In a case that changes the present landscape of Connecticut tort law, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that a claim for emotional distress may be allowed in medical malpractice claims under limited circumstances. Previously, Connecticut law only permitted claims sounding in emotional distress in general tort matters only, and notably not in other claims sounding in professional negligence, such as attorney or medical malpractice. Although the standard for these claims is strict and limited to certain circumstances, this decision could arguably lay the foundation in precedent for emotional distress claims to be allowed in other actions sounding in professional negligence.

In Squeo v. The Norwalk Hospital Association et. al., No. 19283, decided April 28, 2015, the deceased committed suicide almost immediately after being released from the defendant hospital. Just prior to his admission, the decedent was detained by the police after expressing a desire to hurt himself with an electrical cord. He was then taken to the defendant hospital and admitted for an emergency psychiatric evaluation. He was discharged the next morning, after the defendant nurse notified his parents by phone of his release and advised them that the decedent was no longer a danger to himself or others. Not 35 minutes after his discharge, the decedent’s parents found him dead and hanging from a tree in their front yard. The parents sued Norwalk Hospital Association and an advanced nurse involved in the discharge alleging that the defendants were negligent in discharging their son. The additional count for emotional distress was obviously based on the manner in which the plaintiff parents discovered his suicide.

Because Connecticut law did not previously allow claims for emotional distress in a medical malpractice claim, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to that count. On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court was asked to recognize a claim for bystander emotional distress in a medical malpractice context. After conducting a detailed analysis of the development of bystander emotional distress claims as its own cause of action in the United States and Connecticut, the Connecticut Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the plaintiffs and ruled that a bystander to medical malpractice may recover “for the severe emotional distress” suffered “as a direct result of contemporaneously observing gross professional negligence,” provided that at the time of the alleged negligence the bystander is “aware” that the conduct will “likely” result in the “death” or “serious injury” of the “primary victim.” 

In making this decision, the court clarified the elements for bringing the claim for emotional distress and did not intend to change the fundamental law upon which this cause of action was based. The four elements for maintaining a claim for emotional distress in Connecticut tort law are:

  1. The bystander is closely related to the victim of the injury;
  2. the bystander’s emotional distress is caused by the sensory perception of the event , or by arriving on the scene of the event soon thereafter and without a substantial change of the victim’s condition;
  3. the victim dies or suffers a severe injury; and
  4.  the bystander experiences serious emotional distress as a result.

The facts of this case met each of these elements, and clearly fall squarely within the purview of the second. It appears that the Connecticut Supreme Court tried very hard to keep this decision limited to this case and the shocking facts that form the basis of this bystander emotional distress claim.

That said, as a result of this decision, the plaintiff’s bar has received a glimmer of hope that these types of claims will not be dismissed on summary judgment.

For more information on the potential impact of this decision, please contact:

  • Angeline N. Ioannou (860.760.3307; aioannou@goldbergsegalla.com)
  • Or another member of Goldberg Segalla’s Professional Liability Practice Group.