Infliction of Mental Distress

Read and Write a case brief for Ledger v. Tippitt

Ledger v. Tippitt (1985) 164 Cal. App. 3d 625

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The causes of action for negligent infliction of mental distress, is brought by Jennifer Ledger, who enjoyed a “stable and significant” non-marital relationship with Richard Arters II, the decedent. The demurrer to the causes of action was sustained without leave to amend, and Jennifer Ledger appeals from the judgment of dismissal.

Issues Presented

The appellant lived with the decedent for approximately two years and bore his child. Their plans to marry were twice frustrated due to circumstances beyond their control. Appellant witnessed her lover being stabbed, and he died in her arms. Does she have a cause of action for loss of consortium? Does she have a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress?


Jennifer Ledger and Richard Arters II began cohabitating together in 1981, when Jennifer was 15-1/2 years old and Richard was 19. They initially planned to be married on December 6, 1981, but, just prior to their wedding date, Richard was involved in a motorcycle accident. Jennifer nursed him back to health, and they then decided to go to Nevada to be married. Although Jennifer did obtain written authorization from her parents to be married to Richard, she only obtained a copy of her birth certificate, which allegedly was deemed insufficient under Nevada law. Frustrated again, they returned to California. Jennifer bore Richard’s child, Richard Arters III, and they lived together as a family. Richard provided the sole support for Jennifer and their son.

On March 15, 1983, Richard Arters II, accompanied by his business partner, Jennifer and Richard Arters III, their infant son, were traveling to Ojai to submit an estimate on a landscaping project. Suddenly, a vehicle driven by respondent, Ronald W. Tippitt, encroached on Richard’s lane causing Richard to take sudden evasive action to avoid a collision. The two vehicles ultimately came to a stop. Both drivers alighted and a verbal altercation ensued between Richard and respondent Tippitt.

Jennifer remained seated a few feet away in Richard’s vehicle caring for their child, but where she could witness the events. Suddenly, and without warning, respondent Tippitt exhibited a knife and stabbed Richard in the chest. When Richard fell to the ground, Jennifer rushed to his aid. She kneeled by Richard, took him in her arms, and helplessly watched and cried as Richard, bleeding profusely, became comatose and slowly died 20 minutes later.

Negligent Infliction of Mental Distress Discussion

Observing that the incidence of cohabitation without marriage in the United States increased by 800 percent between 1960 and 1970 and that the number of unmarried couples then tripled between 1970 and 1980–rising from 523,000 to 1,560,000, appellant urges us to allow her to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

In Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal. 2d 728, our Supreme Court held that a mother who suffered emotional trauma from witnessing the infliction of death or injury to her child has a valid claim for damages, reasoning that “obviously defendant is more likely to foresee that a mother who observes an accident involving her child will suffer harm than to foretell that a stranger witness will do so.” The court suggested three guidelines: “(1) Whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who was a distance away from it. (2) Whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence. (3) Whether plaintiff and the victim were closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.”

If a parent and child are foreseeable victims, what about others who witness an accident or an intentional tort and who thereby suffer emotional distress? Keeton and Prosser answer this inquiry saying: “If recovery is to be permitted, however, it is also clear that there must be some limitation. It would be an entirely unreasonable burden on all human activity if the defendant who has endangered one man were to be compelled to pay for the lacerated feelings of every other person disturbed by reason of it, including every bystander shocked at an accident, and every distant relative of the person injured, as well as all his friends.”

In Ramirez v. Armstrong (1983), the court concluded that there must be a marital or intimate familial relationship between the victim and the plaintiff, limited to husband and wife, parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, brother and sister, and to those persons who occupy a legitimate position in loco parentis. Therefore, where two children saw their father struck and killed in a crosswalk, they could recover. However, an unrelated child who also resided with the family and who also witnessed the accident could not recover.

A spouse will of course be allowed recovery when he is present when his wife is struck and killed by another vehicle. (Krouse v. Graham.) Recovery has also been permitted where the percipient witness has contracted a common law marriage validly created in states which allow such marriages (Etienne v. DKM Enterprises, Inc., supra, (by implication), or where the witness sees a brother or sister sustain injury (Rickey v. Chicago Transit Authority; Goncalvez v. Patuto (1983) Grandparents have been allowed recovery where they were also injured in a fireworks explosion where they witnessed injuries to the child, and where they shared a very close and family relationship with the deceased child (Genzer v. City of Mission (Tex.Civ.App. 1983)). A child was allowed to sue, under Hawaiian law, where he witnessed a car strike his stepfather’s mother, who lived in the same home, and who was treated as if she was the child’s natural grandmother. (Leong v. Takasaki (1974)

In Mobaldi v. Regents of the University of California (1976), the plaintiff foster mother had held her foster child son in her arms while hospital personnel negligently administered a glucose solution 10 times the safe strength. The child was about three and a half years old and had been in plaintiff’s care since he was five months old. While plaintiff was holding the child he went into convulsions and became comatose, suffering irreversible brain damage. The foster parent had attempted to adopt the child but had been frustrated by a county policy against adoption of seriously ill children. Note, that when the child was baptized, he was christened with the foster parent’s last name. Personnel of the medical center had referred to plaintiff and the child as “mother and child.”

The Mobaldi court concluded that under those facts, the foster mother could recover since the relationship, known to defendant, possessed all of the incidents of those enjoyed by a natural parent child relationship.

In this case, Jennifer Ledger and Richard Arters lived together since Jennifer was 15-1/2 years old. Twice they planned to be married, once with her parents’ consent. The second attempt was frustrated by a technicality. She bore his child. She was in the vehicle when Richard was stabbed and he died in her arms.

In our opinion, it is foreseeable, as a matter of law (Hedlund v. Superior Court, that when defendant drew his knife, and stabbed Richard, that the woman a few feet distant seated in the vehicle was likely a loved one who would suffer extreme emotional distress when Richard died in her arms. A tortfeasor who acts so viciously and callously should not gain immunity merely because their marriage license was never recorded in some county recorder’s office. If defendant would have been liable to her for intentionally inflicting mental distress upon a person who was known to be present, we see no reason whatever to deny recovery simply because his victim is suing for negligently inflicting mental distress.

In light of this strong public policy, it would be sheer folly to suggest that Jennifer should be held in low esteem as a victim merely because her earlier plans to marry Richard went awry. As to her obvious grief, we believe the following statement from Portee v. Jaffe (1980) is illuminating: “The knowledge that loved ones are safe and whole is the deepest wellspring of emotional welfare. Against that reassuring background, the flashes of anxiety and disappointment which mar our lives take on softer hues. No loss is greater than the loss of a loved one, and no tragedy is more wrenching than the helpless apprehension of the death or serious injury of one whose very existence is a precious treasure. The law should find more than pity for one who is stricken by seeing that a loved one has been critically injured or killed.”

We acknowledge that the majority in Drew v. Drake (1980), reached a contrary conclusion. There, plaintiff and the decedent lived together as “de facto spouses” for three years and that plaintiff suffered emotional distress when she witnessed a vehicular collision in which he was killed. Justice Christian said: “No reported decision extends the ‘close relationship’ guideline to include friends or housemates. It has nevertheless been argued that the alleged relationship of housemates might be regarded, at least for the purposes of withstanding a demurrer, as a close relationship. But the Supreme Court used the term ‘close relationship’ as a limitation of potential liability in the context of parent and child. To allow persons standing in a ‘meaningful relationship’ (to use a contemporary colloquialism) to recover for emotional distress resulting in physical injury would abandon the Dillon requirement that ‘[t]he courts…mark out the areas of liability, excluding the remote and unexpected.’ For more information on Infliction of Mental Distress see this:

Infliction of Mental Distress

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