Bystander Emotional Distress Claims expands to Med-Mal Cases

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling in Maloney v. Conroy, 208 Conn. 392 (1988), provided for family members to bring claims for emotional distress in medical malpractice cases after they witnessed a loved one die or be severely injured. This ruling was however superseded in Clohessy v. Bachelor, 237 Conn. 31 (1996), wherein recovery for severe emotional distress was permitted in cases where the bystander suffered as a direct result of contemporaneously observing gross professional negligence such that the bystander was aware, at the time, not only that defendant’s conduct was improper but also that it likely would result in the death of or serious injury to the primary victim.

In one instance, Stephen Squeo hung himself from a tree in his parents’ front yard just a morning after he came back from a psychiatric evaluation at the Norwalk Hospital. The parents of Stephen filed medical malpractice claim against the hospital and nurse for misdiagnosing the man’s mental state, as well as sought damages for bystander emotional distress. The parents alleged that they suffered extreme substantial and permanent emotional distress as a result of witnessing such an incident of hanging, attempted rescue, administration of life support and their son’s death. The Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk at Stamford ruled against the parents and held that they failed to establish that the distress caused them severe injury after their son’s death. Agnes Squeo v. Norwalk Hosp. Ass’n, FSTCV095012548S, 2013 Conn. Super. LEXIS 984.

On appeal, the state Supreme Court agreed to take up the issue. Although, a claim of bystander emotional distress prior to this case was not allowed in medical malpractice claims; however, following a 30 page ruling by Justice Palmer, the claim will now be considered with strict limitations. Justice Palmer agreed with the ruling of the trial court for lack of any evidentiary value given by the plaintiffs. Squeo v. Norwalk Hosp. Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558 (2015). It was held that by remaining employed in their demanding careers, plaintiffs did not undergo any emotional distress. Id. at 600.

In ruling so, he opined that “[s]pecifically, there have been fears that, if anyone who witnesses a serious accident or injury is permitted to bring his or her own independent claim, courts will be flooded with these derivative claims, and defendants will be subject to liability that is disproportionate to their fault.” Id. at 564. He also acknowledged that society has “come to better understand the nature of trauma and other forms of mental distress” to the point that it can be objectively diagnosed. Id. at 565. Mentioning about the consideration for emotional distress claim in Clohessy, a limitation can be drawn to an extent that such claims will be taken as an exception and not a rule.

Squeo’s civil lawsuit does not come to an end with the Supreme Court decision as they still have a wrongful death case pending.

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