Howard v. Lecher

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation397 N.Y.S.2d 363,42 N.Y.2d 109,366 N.E.2d 64
Decision Date16 June 1977
Parties, 366 N.E.2d 64 Robert E. HOWARD et al., Appellants, v. B. Douglas LECHER, Respondent.

Page 363

397 N.Y.S.2d 363
42 N.Y.2d 109, 366 N.E.2d 64
Robert E. HOWARD et al., Appellants,
B. Douglas LECHER, Respondent.
Court of Appeals of New York.
June 16, 1977.

Page 364

Alfred S. Julien and David Jaroslawicz, New York City, for appellants.

Arthur N. Seiff and Anthony L. Schiavetti, New York City, for respondent.


The issue presented is whether the parents can recover from the defendant doctor for the mental distress and emotional disturbances they suffered as a result of their infant daughter having been born with and eventually succumbing to Tay-Sachs disease, a progressive degenerative genetic disorder affecting the nervous system. In their complaint the parents allege that the doctor was negligent in that he failed to take a proper genealogical history or to properly evaluate it. They claim that he was aware that they were both Eastern European Jews and he, therefore, should have known of the high risk that the fetus would suffer from the disease. They contend further that had he made them aware of the risk involved and informed them of the availability of tests to determine the existence of the disease, they would have undergone the tests, and, had they been advised the fetus was afflicted with Tay-Sachs, they would have aborted the pregnancy.

The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim for failure to state a cause of action (CPLR 3211, subd. (a), par. 7). Special Term denied the motion. A divided Appellate Division reversed.

The case is a difficult one to decide. On the one hand the parents claim they have suffered more from watching their child die from natural causes than they would have had they been offered the opportunity to voluntarily terminate the pregnancy through abortion. On the other hand they concede that the doctor was not responsible for the child's affliction with Tay-Sachs or the inevitable death. The question before us is whether the doctor should be held liable for the trauma suffered by the parents allegedly caused by the birth, degeneration and death of the child. Since we are of the opinion that to afford the parents relief as against the doctor would require the extension of traditional tort concepts beyond manageable bounds, we are in agreement with the determination below that the complaint fails to state a cause of action.

In order to provide a party who has been injured through the negligence of another with some measure of redress for the wrong inflicted upon him, a rule of law has evolved allowing that party to recover money damages as compensation for the injuries sustained (cf. Steitz v. Gifford, 280 N.Y. 15, 20, 19 N.E.2d 661, 663-664). This, of course, is based on the legal fiction that money damages can compensate for a victim's injury. Although this device is as close as the law can come in its effort to right the wrong, it is still, nevertheless, a fiction for money will not replace or repair the lost or broken limb or remove the disability caused (see Sanders v. Rolnick, 188 Misc. 627, 67 N.Y.S.2d 652, affd. 272 App.Div. 803, 71 N.Y.S.2d 896).

By the same token, however, the law has long recognized that it need not provide relief for every injury suffered. Where a party's negligence is directly responsible for physical injury to another, there is no question but that the injured party may recover both for the actual physical injury sustained and for the concomitant mental and emotional suffering which flow as a natural consequence of the wrongful act (see Steitz v. Gifford, 280 N.Y. 15, 19 N.E.2d 661, supra ). Indeed, an individual can recover for the psychic injuries suffered as a result of another's negligence where there has been no physical impact if the party seeking recovery was subjected to the fear of physical injury as a direct result of the tortious conduct (Battalla v. State of

Page 365

New York, 10 N.Y.2d 237, 219 N.Y.S.2d 34, 176 N.E.2d 729). Further, we have held that there may be recovery for the emotional harm, even in the absence of fear of potential physical injury, to one subjected directly to the negligence of another as long as the psychic injury was genuine, substantial, and proximately caused by the defendant's conduct (Johnson v. State of New York, 37 N.Y.2d 378, 383-384, 372 N.Y.S.2d 638, 642-643, 334 N.E.2d 590, 593).

On the other hand, the law has repeatedly denied recovery for mental and emotional injuries suffered by a third party as a result of physical injuries sustained by another (Tobin v. Grossman, 24 N.Y.2d 609, 301 N.Y.S.2d 554, 249 N.E.2d 419, and cases cited therein; Shaner v. Greece Cent. School Dist. No. 1, 51 A.D.2d 662, 378 N.Y.S.2d 185; Bessette v. St. Peter's Hosp., 51 A.D.2d 286, 381 N.Y.S.2d 339; Roher v. State of New York, 279 App.Div. 1116, 112 N.Y.S.2d 603). No cause of action exists, irrespective of the relationship between the parties or whether one was a witness to the event giving rise to the direct injury of another, for the unintentional infliction of harm to a person solely by reason of that person's mental and emotional reaction to a direct injury suffered by another. Thus, in Tobin v. Grossman (supra), we denied recovery to a mother traumatized by the injuries suffered by her child as the result of the negligent operation of an automobile by another. Our court there recognized, as we now do, that the plaintiff parent suffered as genuinely as if she herself were the object of the injury which resulted from the impact suffered by the child. However, we also recognize then, as now, that the law must establish, circumscribe and limit the rules ascribing liability in a manner which accords with reason and practicality.

In the case now before us, we assume, as we must in connection with this motion to dismiss (Cohn v. Lionel Corp., 21 N.Y.2d 559, 562, 289 N.Y.S.2d 404, 407, 236 N.E.2d 634, 636), that the doctor was negligent in failing to take the proper measures to determine whether the fetus suffered from Tay-Sachs and that as a result of that negligence the parents permitted the pregnancy to run its course and the child to be born instead of seeking an abortion. Whether or not a cause of action would lie on behalf of the injured child has not yet been addressed by our court (cf. Johnson v. Yeshiva Univ.,42 N.Y.2d 818, 396 N.Y.S.2d 647, 364 N.E.2d 1340), nor is it the question now before us.

We are here concerned with a suit brought by the parents for their mental and emotional pain and suffering resulting from witnessing their child suffer from this horrid disease. It cannot be denied that they themselves were made to...

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