In a recent opinion, the Indiana Supreme Court recently carved out an exception to the state’s longstanding negligent infliction of emotional distress rule. The change allows the parents of children who experienced sexual abuse by a caretaker to pursue emotional distress damages. According to the record, a mother filed a lawsuit against a school district after learning that an instructional assistant was abusing the woman’s profoundly disabled daughter. The woman filed a civil lawsuit alleging that she experienced emotional distress after the discovery. A lower court dismissed the claim based on the state’s archaic law that limits these damages to those who witness the injury or death of a loved one. While an appeals court permitted the economic damages to claim, they refused to expand the state’s law to allow the emotional distress claim.
Historically, the bystander rule for negligent infliction of emotional distress allowed recovery to those who experienced distress from witnessing a close family member’s sudden and unexpected death by the at-fault party. The Court loosened the rules in 2000, allowing lawsuits if a person observed the injury or death of family or its “gruesome aftermath.”
In this groundbreaking Indiana case, the Court held that the school owed a duty of care to the woman as a parent of a child at their school. The assistant confessed and pleaded guilty; however, the mother did not discover the abuse until after the confession. At which point, the mother suffered emotional distress, which included bouts of anger and the inability to control her emotions.