D.C. Court of Appeals Expands Scope of Emotional Distress Claims

In Destefano v. Children’s National Medical Center, 2015 WL 4477820, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently addressed the scope of negligent infliction of emotional distress claims under D.C. law.

The Destefano case arose from an incident where six-year-old boy suffered injuries after falling down a twenty-five-foot-deep air shaft that had been left exposed in a parking garage.  The boy’s parents brought various claims against the parking garage operator alleging that it negligently left the air shaft exposed.  Included was a claim for emotional distress suffered by the boy’s mother, who was with him at the time of his fall and who attempted to rescue him by entering the shaft.

The Court of Appeals analyzed the mother’s emotional distress claim in light of its decision in Williams v. Baker, 572 A.2d 1062 (D.C. 1990), in which it held that a plaintiff who attempts to recover for emotional distress caused by harm negligently inflicted on a third person may only do so if the plaintiff was within the “zone of physical danger” caused by the defendant’s negligence.

In Destefano, the Court of Appeals expanded the Williams rule, holding that a plaintiff may recover damages for emotional distress when he or she enters the zone of physical danger in a rescue attempt.  In reversing the trial court’s granting of summary judgment to the defendants on the mother’s emotional distress claim, the Court of Appeals held that the mother presented evidence that she entered the zone of danger when she nearly fell into the shaft attempting to rescue her son.

Click here to read the opinion.