Emotional Distress: Plaintiffs’ Witnessing of Ongoing “Care Failures” Is Sufficient to Allege Bystander Liability

August 23, 2017 | Risk Management News

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​The Supreme Court of Tennessee held that parents who observed a hospital's series of failures to provide requested care for their child, which they claimed caused them to experience contemporaneous anxiety, had a legally sufficient claim of bystander liability for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs sued the hospital individually and on behalf of their deceased child, alleging that the hospital's negligent failure to treat the child resulted in her death and in the parents' emotional pain and suffering. They alleged that they witnessed “injury-producing events" involving multiple care failures causing the deterioration and suffering of their child while the child's father repeatedly requested a cardiology consult that never occurred before the child developed cardiac arrest.

Their child, age 10, was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit for septic shock related to the flu. The parents claimed that although fluids and other medicines were administered at admission, "no central line was placed, no echocardiogram was performed; no one called for a cardiology consult." The evening following her admission, the child's care was transferred from the attending physician to a resident. On the morning following the transfer of care, the parents witnessed their daughter suffer cardiac arrest, after which she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. A few days later, she had a stroke and was diagnosed with brain death. A decision was made to...

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