No Emotional Distress Claim Based on Negligent Destruction of Property

In a recent case where plaintiff was seeking damages for emotional injuries, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for defendant, holding that plaintiff could not recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when the claim was based on the negligent destruction of property.

In Lane v. Estate of Leggett, No. M2016-00448-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 29, 2017), plaintiff owned an antique and gift shop. Defendant was driving when he rear-ended the car in front of him, veered off the road, and ran into plaintiff’s store. During the accident, defendant hit a gas meter, causing a fire that completely destroyed plaintiff’s store and killed defendant. Plaintiff was not at the store when the accident occurred but arrived shortly after the fire began.

Plaintiff brought suit against the defendant’s estate for negligence resulting in property damage and emotional injuries (the property damage claim was dismissed under the doctrine of prior suit pending, as a case had already been filed by the relevant insurance company). The complaint stated that “as a result of observing the fire and the circumstances surrounding the same, including having narrowly escaped being present when the incident occurred, the Plaintiff has been caused severe mental and emotional injuries and has had to seek the assistance of a psychologist and psychiatrist…and has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety.” Defendant moved for summary judgment on the claims for emotional injuries, asserting that plaintiff was claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress, and that such a claim “is not a cause of action intended to permit recovery for emotional distress arising in connection with property damage.” The trial court granted summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In its analysis, the Court first noted that “[t]he law of negligent infliction of emotional distress has been called ‘one of the most disparate and confusing areas of tort law.’” (internal citation omitted). Regarding this particular situation where the claim was based on the destruction of property, the Court pointed out that “no case has explicitly held that negligent infliction of emotional distress is a cognizable claim when a plaintiff’s emotional injuries arise solely out of property damage.” The Court then quoted from a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion:

Subject to some exceptions, generally, under ordinary circumstances, there can be no recovery for mental anguish suffered by plaintiff in connection with an injury to his or her property. Where, however, the act occasioning the injury to the property is inspired by fraud, malice, or like motives, mental suffering is a proper element of damage.

(Whaley v. Perkins, 197 S.W.3d 665 (Tenn. 2006)). Noting that other states had followed a similar rule, the Court determined that the plaintiff in this case had not “alleged or shown fraud, malice, or like motives on Defendant’s part,” and that defendant’s negligent destruction of property would thus not support an emotional distress claim. Likewise, the Court ruled that plaintiff’s amended complaint, which added an allegation that defendant had acted recklessly, did not meet the standard for an emotional distress claim based on property damage. The Court ruled that “Plaintiff has not alleged or established facts that would show an intentional act or ill motive so as to support a claim for emotional distress arising from Defendant’s destruction of his property” and affirmed summary judgment for defendant.

As we’ve seen before, it is difficult to succeed on an emotional distress claim. Based on this case, if the claim is premised on property damage, proving an emotional distress claim is even more difficult, requiring a showing of “an intentional act or ill motive” in connection with the destruction of the property.