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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Rules That Emotional Damages May Be Recoverable Without Proof of Physical Impact or Medical Documentation

September 1, 2009

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Cruz v. Princeton Insur. Co., 2009 Pa. Super 49; 2009 Pa. Super. LEXIS 64 (Mar. 24, 2009), ruled upon one of the elements of an abuse of process claim, i.e. harm to the plaintiff, finding that the harm element could be met by merely using the plaintiffs' testimony to show that they are upset by the filing of a petition for appointment of a guardian ad litem pertaining to their minor son. The impact of this holding could be far reaching, possibly expanding the ability of plaintiffs to collect on claims of emotional distress damages in other torts.

The Cruz case stemmed from an underlying medical malpractice case brought by the Cruzes on behalf of their minor son, Adam, against Northeastern Hospital for permanent and debilitating injuries he sustained during birth. A jury returned a verdict for over $10 million against the hospital; however, after taking into consideration delay damages, the verdict was molded to over $15 million. Not surprisingly, during the appeal process, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations, which proved to be unsuccessful. Following an unsuccessful mediation, Attorney Gold, retained by Princeton on appeal, petitioned the court to appoint a guardian ad litem for Adam to supplant the Cruzes as decision-makers on behalf of their son with respect to the settlement negotiations. Although the petition was denied, the Cruzes settled the case for only $7.1 million.

The Cruzes then filed a new lawsuit alleging an abuse of process claim against Princeton and Attorney Gold. In order to establish an abuse of process claim, the following elements must be satisfied: (1) the defendant used a legal process against the plaintiff (2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed, and (3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff. Werner v. Plater-Zybek, 799 A.2d 776, 785 (Pa.Super. 2002). Specifically, the Cruzes argued that Princeton and Gold improperly utilized the guardian ad litem petition to strong-arm the Cruzes into settlement. In essence, they alleged that the filing of the petition caused the Cruzes extreme emotional distress based on their incorrect legal interpretation that the petition sought to take away their parental rights, scaring them into settlement.

Attorney Gold argued to the Superior Court that the Cruzes' emotional distress was mundane to life and not serious enough to warrant compensation. To that end, Gold further argued that the Cruzes' deposition testimony exhibited the mere emotions of "anger" and "upset" rather than describing intense physical consequences. Citing no case law in support, Gold urged the Superior Court to analogize the situation to intentional or emotional distress cases and apply the "impact rule," requiring the Cruzes to show that their emotional harm was due to physical impact or was at least documented by objective medical evidence.

Declining to agree with Gold, the Superior Court made a clear distinction between the differing requirements for the harm element in abuse of process claims versus causes of action for emotional distress. The Superior Court reasoned that cases involving claims of intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress are nebulous by nature and, therefore, require a heightened burden associated with proving the alleged distress. For example, in those claims, the plaintiffs must prove real and objective extreme distress by showing the presence of physical impact and by having expert medical testimony to support the alleged extreme emotional distress.

However, when the plaintiffs are trying to prove emotional distress damages arising from other torts, such as in an abuse of process claim, the heavy threshold surrounding emotional distress has been broken down. In Cruz, the Superior Court limited application of the heightened burden to claims based on intentional or negligent emotional distress, eliminating that hurdle for plaintiffs in an abuse of process claim, and potentially in other tort claims as well. Now, in order to establish emotional distress damages in non-bodily injury claims, the plaintiffs simply can rely on any admissible evidence. The plaintiffs' alleged harm (emotional distress) need not be supported by physical impact or medical testimony. Accordingly, the Cruzes were able to prove their emotional harm by directing the court to their deposition testimony, which consistently set forth the parents' feelings of anger, upset, embarrassment, and insult.

This case is significant in that it reduces the amount and lightens the type of proof necessary to show the harm element for an abuse of process claim, simply making the harm element a question of fact. It can be expected that plaintiffs will heavily cite this ruling in cases involving emotional distress damages where no bodily injury has occurred. Thus, in the future, it is likely that claims that hinge on proving harm to the plaintiff will survive summary judgment and ultimately be decided by the factfinder. Notably, the Superior Court appeared to be swayed by everyday human experiences, focusing on the emotional bond between parents and their children. Due to the fact that the Superior Court's opinion stresses its concern over the importance and sensitive nature of the parent-child relationship, and the fact that there was a strong disagreement amongst the Judges, do not be surprised if future decisions narrow the holding in this case to close, family relationships. Perhaps in future litigation, defendants will be able to heighten the burden of proof concerning emotional distress damages in non-bodily injury situations by distinguishing the particular relationship that exists in their case.

*Rebecca is an associate in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office. She can be reached at (412) 803-3460 or rlmagyar@mdwcg.com.

Defense Digest, Vol. 15, No. 3, September 2009

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