When a person brings a personal injury action to recover damages for injuries they suffered as a result of some kind of accident, a number of different kinds of damages may be sought. Typically, an injured person seeks damages for the pain and suffering they have endured (known in the legal world as “non-pecuniary damages), past and future health-care related costs, past and future loss of earnings and earning potential, and costs associated with housekeeping and home maintenance needs that arise as a result of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Other types of damages may be sought in a personal injury action that is not typical and does not arise in every case. An example of one such type of damage is a claim for negligent infliction of mental injury (sometimes referred to as “nervous shock”). A claim for damages for negligent infliction of mental injury is a separate tort that requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant behaved in a negligent manner that they knew or should have known could result in mental injury or suffering to another party. Such torts are difficult to prove, and success for such a claim is not guaranteed.

Recently, the Supreme Court of British Columbia had to consider throwing out a claim for negligent infliction of mental distress. The court’s analysis in declining the motion and allowing the claim to proceed is extremely helpful and instructive as to how the courts of this province handle such claims.

A Claim Arises from a Fatal Accident

The case of Stroup v Klassen involved the plaintiffs, Dean and Tara Stroup, who are spouses and were the parents of Madeline Stroup. On July 26, 2019, Madeline was involved in a car accident when the vehicle in which she was a passenger was t-boned by an SUV in an intersection. The SUV driver, Frank Klassen, had entered the intersection illegally, having ignored a stop sign that should have prevented his movement into the intersection. The driver of Madeline’s vehicle died at the scene of the accident, while Madeline was airlifted from the scene and taken to the closest hospital. As Dean and Tara received news of the accident while they were apart, they each travelled to the hospital separately and arrived there at different times. Dean arrived at the hospital after Madeline had undergone her first emergency surgery, and he could see Madeline. However, she was unconscious and hooked up to machinery at the time. Tara was unable to see Madeline on the night of the accident, though she did see her the following day when Madeline was in the intensive care unit, unconscious. Madeline remained unconscious for the ensuing six days, during which time her parents stayed by her side. Multiple further attempts at medical intervention failed, and Madeline was removed from life support on the morning of August 2, 2019.

Tara and Dean commenced a claim for damages against Frank Klassen, the SUV driver who had caused the accident. Among their claims was an action for recovery of damages for negligent infliction of mental distress. Klassen’s counsel brought an application in which they sought to have that claim thrown out of court. Klassen argued that the claim should be thrown out because Dean and Tara had not witnessed the accident nor its immediate aftermath. He also contended insufficient proximity between Klassen and Madeline’s parents to ground the complaint.

The Legal Principles Applicable to Negligent Infliction of Mental Distress

To be successful in a claim of negligent infliction of mental distress, a plaintiff must prove four things: that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care to avoid the kind of loss alleged; that the defendant breached that duty of care by failing to observe the applicable standard of care; that the plaintiff suffered some kind of damage as a result, and; that the damage arose as a direct result of the defendant’s breach of their duty of care. Moreover, when the court considers the duty of care, the analysis “recognize[s] that a duty exists to take reasonable care to avoid causing foreseeable mental injury.” When considering whether one party owes another a duty of care, the court considers the parties’ proximity.

Application of the Legal Principles to the Facts of This Case

Klassen had argued that the claim for intentional infliction of mental distress should be thrown out because there was insufficient proximity between himself and Madeline’s parents for him to have owed them any duty of care. Further, Klassen contended that Dean and Tara had not witnessed their daughter at the accident scene nor in the immediate aftermath thereof, which meant that any mental anguish they suffered was too remote to be connected to the accident itself. As such, Klassen invited the court to impose a “bright line” whereby any claim for the tort of intentional infliction of mental distress would be thrown out by the court where the party claiming such damages was not attendant at the scene of the incident out of which the damages purportedly arose.

The court declined to find, in accordance with Klassen’s line of argument, “because of the Supreme Court of Canada’s prohibition on a formal and rigid application of the locational and other proximity factors… Instead, they must be applied flexibly [in order] to capture all relevant circumstances that might determine whether a duty of care is owed”. The court further concluded that to fixate on when the plaintiffs first saw their injured daughter, to the exclusion of all other factors, would be antithetical to the approach mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada. As such, the court was satisfied that it would be inappropriate to throw out this claim of intentional infliction of mental distress on a summary judgment motion since the matter required careful and fulsome consideration, which could only be conducted at a full trial. In other words, the court ruled that the claim could proceed to a hearing on the merits at trial and would not be summarily dismissed.

Contact Meridian Law Group Today to Discuss Your Personal Injury Claim

If you are involved in a personal injury claim, either as defendant or plaintiff, you must engage excellent counsel. The personal injury litigation lawyers at Meridian Law Group have the expertise and experience required to guide you through this often complicated and intimidating process. Our capable and knowledgeable lawyers will compassionately and tenaciously represent your interests while ensuring you receive every dollar you are entitled to.

Meridian Law Group, from its offices in downtown Vancouver, is proud to serve clients throughout the province of British Columbia. Contact Merdian Law Group online or by telephone at (604) 687-2277 to schedule a confidential consultation.