What Did The Indiana Supreme Court Say About The “Bystander Rule”, Emotional Distress & Social Media?
Ray Clifton (“Clifton”) and his son Darryl Clifton (“Darryl”) lived together and were very close. Darryl helped take care of his father. On August 3, 2012, fifty-one-year-old Darryl left home on his moped at approximately 11:15 a.m. Shortly after, around 11:28 a.m., Ruby McCammack negligently turned left in front of Darryl, who struck McCammack’s car and suffered fatal injuries. Immediately after the impact, Darryl was still on his moped. Witnesses then lifted Darryl and laid him on the pavement. Darryl had severe bleeding from his head and also suffered from face, neck, and back trauma. Resuscitation efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and Darryl was pronounced dead at 11:43 a.m. At the time of the collision, Clifton was home watching television. When the 12:00 p.m. news aired, he saw that a fatal accident involving a moped had occurred on the 3300 block of Kentucky Avenue. Clifton feared that the person involved in the collision was Darryl. He had a “very bad feeling” and “definitely was upset.” Although he was not sure, Clifton “figured” Darryl was going to Indianapolis and knew Kentucky Avenue was “the route he always took” to get there. The news segment, however, did not provide any pictures or video of the accident or details about the victim. Clifton quickly got into his car and drove to the scene, which was about 4 miles from his home. It took him 6 or 7 minutes to get there, and Clifton “pray[ed] all the way” that the victim was not Darryl. When he arrived, he saw a lot of police cars and people, and he pulled into a nearby gas station. From a distance of 20 or 25 feet, he also saw Darryl’s moped near the front wheel of McCammack’s car and a body on the ground covered with a white sheet. Clifton never approached the body and could not see any blood or physical signs of injury, but he recognized the shoes sticking out from under the sheet—they were Darryl’s. Clifton immediately talked to an officer, who took Clifton to a nearby restaurant. There, police confirmed that the victim was, in fact, Darryl. Clifton kept repeating, “Why? Why? Why?” A couple hours later, Clifton’s minister and the minister’s wife took Clifton home. Clifton did not see the removal of Darryl’s body, and when Clifton left, the scene had been completely cleaned. After the accident, Clifton had to undergo counseling and was prescribed antidepressant medication. In 2013, he sued McCammack for negligent infliction of emotional distress. After a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment to McCammack, finding that the undisputed facts established that Clifton fails to meet the temporal and circumstantial requirements to permit recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
On appeal, the Court noted that our “bystander rule” allows recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress if a claimant can establish sufficient “direct involvement” with the incident. “Direct involvement” involves certain temporal and circumstantial factors. The temporal factor requires that the claimant be at the scene of the incident when it occurs or arrive soon after; the circumstantial factors require both the scene and victim to be in the same condition as immediately following the incident and the claimant to have not been informed of the incident before coming upon the scene. Without these requirements, an emotional distress claim fails as a matter of law. In the present case, Clifton was informed of the incident before arriving to the crash scene. When the 12:00 news aired, Clifton learned of a fatal motorbike accident that occurred along a route that Darryl frequented. It is undisputed that Clifton’s emotional distress began as he was watching television—and emotional trauma triggered by a news story of an accident is distinct from sudden shock that arises when one unwittingly comes upon a scene of an accident. Thus, as a matter of law, Clifton was informed of the incident indirectly before his arrival to the crash site. Again, we must stress that major public policy concerns dictate that we draw bright lines, especially in terms of this particular tort. To allow a claimant to recover under a bystander theory when his or her emotional distress begins as a result of seeing a news story or the like would result in virtually limitless litigation. Our quickly evolving state of social media and instantaneous news coverage further underscores the importance of setting parameters for this tort. We are at a point in time when people are often subjected to seeing live, streaming footage—on high-definition televisions, smart phones, or other devices—of emergencies possibly involving their immediate beloved relatives. There must be a point at which a defendant’s exposure to liability for negligent infliction of emotional distress ends—not to diminish real anguish, but simply because pragmatism demands that the line be drawn somewhere. And our precedent has drawn that line by setting out straightforward limits for recovery under this tort.
The undisputed facts demonstrate that Clifton did not meet the circumstantial factors under the bystander test—both the scene and victim were significantly changed before he arrived at the accident, and he had also been informed of the incident indirectly before coming upon it. Accordingly, as a matter of law, Clifton is unable to recover emotional distress damages, and McCammack is entitled to summary judgment. — N.E.3d —-, 2015 WL 5547140