Indiana court expands who can get emotional distress damages

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court has expanded the limited number of people who are eligible to recover damages in lawsuits alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Indiana lawsuits seeking damages for emotional distress typically can only be pursued by a person who suffers a direct physical injury, suffers an injury that also injures or kills a third-party, or witnesses a relative’s death or severe injury immediately after it occurs.

But in a 3-2 decision released Dec. 22, Indiana’s high court said it is also now allowing a parent or guardian to seek damages from a child caretaker when the parent or guardian discovers, with irrefutable certainty, that the caretaker sexually abused their child and that abuse severely impacted the parent or guardian’s emotional health, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

The new rule arose from a case involving the sexual assault of a profoundly disabled child in 2015 and 2016 by an instructional assistant responsible for her care at a school in the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indianapolis.

According to court records, the perpetrator confessed to her actions two years later, then pleaded guilty to child molesting and received a 13-year sentence.

In 2019, the child’s mother sued the woman, the school, and the school district claiming she suffered emotional distress because of the child’s sexual assault. She alleged her distress ultimately compromised her ability to care for her daughter at home and forced her to incur expenses for the child’s placement in a chronic care facility.

Court records show the mother’s lawsuit was turned aside by lower courts because her claims didn’t fit any of the categories for which damages for emotional distress can be pursued, chiefly because she did not witness the abuse and only learned of it years later.

But in the ruling, Supreme Court Justice Christopher Goff concluded that an expansion was necessary because “the extraordinary circumstances here warrant a proper remedy.”

“Justice compels us to fashion a rule permitting a claim for damages limited to circumstances like those presented here,” he wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Steven David.

Goff said the specific facts of the Marion County case perfectly align with the court’s new rule and ordered that the mother be permitted to proceed to trial against the defendants in her emotional distress claim.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented from the court’s ruling in an opinion joined by Justice Mark Massa. Slaughter suggested that any expansion of emotional distress liability is a task best left to the Legislature rather than the courts.

He wrote that the court’s decision almost certainly opens the door to a significant number of additional emotional distress claims being filed in Indiana’s courts.

“Only time will tell whether today’s watershed rule is so narrow and fact-specific that it proves to be a one-way ticket for this ride only — or whether, as I suspect, it is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, with the rest of the camel soon to follow,” he wrote.

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