300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981), 64492, Barnhill v. Davis

Docket Nº:64492.
Citation:300 N.W.2d 104
Party Name:Robert C. BARNHILL, Appellant, v. Rose Marie DAVIS and James A. Davis, Appellees.
Case Date:January 14, 1981
Court:Supreme Court of Iowa

Page 104

300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981)

Robert C. BARNHILL, Appellant,

v.

Rose Marie DAVIS and James A. Davis, Appellees.

No. 64492.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

January 14, 1981

Page 105

James W. Carney and James S. Blackburn of Carney, Hudson, Williams & Green, Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Logan of Hopkins & Huebner, Des Moines, for appellees.

Considered en banc.

McGIVERIN, Justice.

When, if ever, should a bystander be able to recover for emotional distress resulting from witnessing the negligent infliction of harm on another person? The trial court sustained defendants' motion for summary judgment, resulting in dismissal of plaintiff-bystander's petition. We reverse.

I. Background. In reviewing the trial court's grant of summary judgment, we view the facts in the entire record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Tasco, Inc. v. Winkel, 281 N.W.2d 280, 282 (Iowa 1979). Summary judgment is proper only where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Iowa R.Civ.P. 237(c).

The record, consisting of the pleadings, answers to interrogatories, a deposition, exhibits and an affidavit, discloses the following facts exist without substantial controversy. On June 12, 1978, plaintiff Robert C. Barnhill was driving his car in West Des Moines. He was being followed by his mother, Grace Maring, who was driving her car. Barnhill stopped at an intersection and then proceeded safely through it. He pulled over to the side, about three car lengths from the intersection, to wait for his mother. When Maring tried to drive through the intersection, her car was struck on the driver's side by a car driven by defendant Rose Marie Davis and owned by defendant James A. Davis.

As a result of the accident, Maring was slightly bruised. She was examined by doctors shortly after the accident and also approximately six weeks later. The first examination disclosed a bruised rib cage and mild muscle strain. The second examination report stated "she did not claim or present any evidence of physical injury from the accident." Barnhill claims that he has suffered emotional distress because of his fear for his mother's safety. He contends the emotional distress has caused pain in his back and legs, dizziness, and difficulty in sleeping.

Divisions I and II of the petition were claims by Barnhill for damages for emotional distress. Maring also claimed damages but later voluntarily dismissed her portion of the petition with prejudice.

Defendants moved under Iowa R.Civ.P. 104(b) to dismiss Barnhill's petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court denied the motion. Defendants, after discovery, moved under Iowa R.Civ.P. 237 for summary judgment on the grounds that a bystander, who is not involved in an accident, cannot recover as a matter of law for emotional distress from the harm to a third person caused by a defendant's negligence. The court granted the motion for the reasons urged.

Barnhill appeals from the grant of summary judgment against him. Davises cross-appeal from the denial of their motion to dismiss.

We are initially presented with the question of whether a bystander, who is not in any physical danger, may recover in Iowa for emotional distress and its consequences resulting from fear for the safety of another person caused by the defendant's negligence. We conclude that the bystander

Page 106

should be able to maintain such a claim under certain circumstances. Because we believe plaintiff has generated a genuine issue of material fact on the elements of this tort, defendants' motion for summary judgment should have been overruled. Therefore, we reverse on the appeal and affirm on the cross-appeal.

This court has not previously decided the issue presented by this appeal. We said in Wambsgans v. Price, 274 N.W.2d 362, 365 (Iowa 1979), "While we do not adhere to the impact rule which requires a physical injury in order to recover for emotional distress or mental anguish, we have never allowed such a recovery for negligence alone." We have also noted, "(W)here the act is willful or malicious, as distinguished from being merely negligent, recovery may be had for mental pain, though no physical injury results." Barnett v. Collection Service Co., 214 Iowa 1303, 1312, 242 N.W. 25, 28 (1932).

Prior to 1968, most jurisdictions denied recovery for mental disturbance from witnessing the peril of another. W. Prosser, The Law of Torts § 54 (4th ed. 1971). In 1968 California decided that a mother, who was not herself in any physical danger, could recover for mental distress and its consequences from witnessing a defendant negligently drive a car into and kill her child. Dillon v. Legg, 68 Cal.2d 728, 441 P.2d 912, 69 Cal.Rptr. 72 (1968). We find much of the Dillon court's rationale helpful in deciding this case.

II. Whether to allow bystander recovery. Defendants do not seriously contend that a bystander should never be able to recover for emotional distress from witnessing the peril of a third party caused by negligence of another person. Rather, they argue that only bystanders who, unlike Barnhill, are physically endangered by the defendant's negligence should be allowed to recover. Nevertheless, we will briefly review, and put to rest, traditional arguments for denying bystander recovery before considering the scope of this claim for damages.

The first argument against allowing bystander recovery for mental distress at the peril of another is that the door will be open to a flood of litigation. We find this unpersuasive. If, as we conclude, a bystander has an interest in mental tranquillity that the law of torts should protect in certain carefully delineated cases, the burden on the courts in protecting that interest should not result in a wholesale denial of the claim. Dillon, 68 Cal.2d at 735, 441 P.2d at 917, 69 Cal.Rptr. at 77; Toms v. McConnell, 45 Mich.App. 647, 656, 207 N.W.2d 140, 145 (1973); Tobin v. Grossman, 24 N.Y.2d 609, 615, 249 N.E.2d 419, 422, 301 N.Y.S.2d 554, 558-59 (1969); Sinn v. Burd, 486 Pa. 146, 163, 404 A.2d 672, 680-81 (1979).

Another argument against allowing bystander recovery is that fraudulent claims might successfully be asserted. While the possibility of fraud is of concern, it does not require a wholesale rejection of all claims by bystanders. Legitimate claims of bystanders should be allowed. The responsibility of weeding out fraudulent claims on a case-by-case basis rests on courts, juries and the adversary system. Dillon, 68 Cal.2d 737, 441 P.2d at 918, 69 Cal.Rptr. at 78; Dziokonski v. Babineau, 375 Mass. 555, ----, 380 N.E.2d 1295, 1301 (1978); Tobin, 24 N.Y.2d at 616, 249 N.E.2d at 422, 301 N.Y.S.2d at 559.

Finally, there is the problem of defining limits to the liability to bystanders. Devising one specific rule to cover recovery in bystander cases under a myriad of factual patterns is impossible. The case-by-case approach of the common law is best suited to refine the rules. Dillon, 68 Cal.2d at 740, 441 P.2d at 920, 69 Cal.Rptr. at 80; Toms, 45 Mich.App. at 655, 207 N.W.2d at 144. For now, we develop general guidelines for a bystander claim in Iowa and confine ourselves to the facts of this case.

III. When to allow bystander recovery. A defendant who acts negligently is only liable for injuries to others that are reasonably foreseeable. Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., ...

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83 practice notes
  • 727 P.2d 1038 (Alaska 1986), S-79, Tommy's Elbow Room, Inc. v. Kavorkian
    • United States
    • Alaska Supreme Court of Alaska
    • 31 Octubre 1986
    ...New England Tel. Co., 175 Conn. 337, 398 A.2d 1180 (1978); Leong v. Takasaki, 55 Haw. 398, 520 P.2d 758 (1974); Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981); Culbert v. Sampson's Supermarkets, 444 A.2d 433 (Me.1982); Dziokonski v. Babineau, 375 Mass. 555, 380 N.E.2d 1295 (1978); Bass v. No......
  • 420 So.2d 348 (Fla.App. 5 Dist. 1982), 81-1309, Champion v. Gray
    • United States
    • Florida Florida Court of Appeals Fifth District
    • 6 Octubre 1982
    ...the zone of danger test and allow recovery in cases where the parent or close relative was outside the zone of danger. Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981) (son, who was waiting for his mother at the opposite side of a traffic intersection, saw his mother's vehicle struck on the dr......
  • 304 N.W.2d 790 (Iowa 1981), 65064, Fundermann v. Mickelson
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 15 Abril 1981
    ...conclusion rejects everything this court ever has written on the function and insight of a jury. See, e. g., Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104, 106 (Iowa 1981) ("The responsibility of weeding out fraudulent claims on a case-by-case basis rests on courts, juries and the adversary system......
  • 342 N.W.2d 492 (Iowa 1984), 69198, Oberreuter v. Orion Industries, Inc.
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 18 Enero 1984
    ...appeal from a ruling sustaining a motion to dismiss, plaintiff Violet Oberreuter asks us to expand our holding in Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981), and recognize her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising out of injuries to her husband and son, even though......
  • Free signup to view additional results
81 cases
  • 727 P.2d 1038 (Alaska 1986), S-79, Tommy's Elbow Room, Inc. v. Kavorkian
    • United States
    • Alaska Supreme Court of Alaska
    • 31 Octubre 1986
    ...New England Tel. Co., 175 Conn. 337, 398 A.2d 1180 (1978); Leong v. Takasaki, 55 Haw. 398, 520 P.2d 758 (1974); Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981); Culbert v. Sampson's Supermarkets, 444 A.2d 433 (Me.1982); Dziokonski v. Babineau, 375 Mass. 555, 380 N.E.2d 1295 (1978); Bass v. No......
  • 420 So.2d 348 (Fla.App. 5 Dist. 1982), 81-1309, Champion v. Gray
    • United States
    • Florida Florida Court of Appeals Fifth District
    • 6 Octubre 1982
    ...the zone of danger test and allow recovery in cases where the parent or close relative was outside the zone of danger. Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981) (son, who was waiting for his mother at the opposite side of a traffic intersection, saw his mother's vehicle struck on the dr......
  • 304 N.W.2d 790 (Iowa 1981), 65064, Fundermann v. Mickelson
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 15 Abril 1981
    ...conclusion rejects everything this court ever has written on the function and insight of a jury. See, e. g., Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104, 106 (Iowa 1981) ("The responsibility of weeding out fraudulent claims on a case-by-case basis rests on courts, juries and the adversary system......
  • 342 N.W.2d 492 (Iowa 1984), 69198, Oberreuter v. Orion Industries, Inc.
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 18 Enero 1984
    ...appeal from a ruling sustaining a motion to dismiss, plaintiff Violet Oberreuter asks us to expand our holding in Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981), and recognize her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising out of injuries to her husband and son, even though......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Expanding the family: testing the limits of tort liability.
    • United States
    • Defense Counsel Journal Vol. 61 Nbr. 2, April 1994
    • 1 Abril 1994
    ...or the presence of only a distant relationship. (6.) See, e.g., Ramirez v. Armstrong, 673 P.2d 822 (N.M. 1983); Barnhill v. Davis, 300 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981); Corso v. Merrill, 406 A.2d 300 (N.H. 1979); Dziokonski v. Babineau, 380 N.E.2d 1295 (Mass. 1978); Leong v. Takasaki, 520 P.2d 758 (H......