California’s Law on “Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress”

California law permits the recovery of compensatory damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. Negligent infliction of emotional distress is not an independent cause of action. It is a basis for damages in a claim for negligence under California law.

Damages for emotional distress can be claimed by someone who:

  • Was a direct victim of another's wrongful act, or
  • A bystander who witnessed an injury to a close relative.

Such damages can include (without limitation):

To help you better understand California's law on the negligent infliction of emotional distress, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

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1. What is emotional distress under California law?

Emotional distress in California includes (without limitation): 

  • suffering,
  • anguish,
  • fright,
  • horror,
  • nervousness,
  • grief,
  • anxiety,
  • worry,
  • shock,
  • humiliation, and
  • shame.  

Serious emotional distress exists if an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to cope with the mental stress engendered by the circumstances of the case.1

2. The elements of a “direct victim” claim

A plaintiff is the direct victim of negligent infliction of emotional distress if:

  1. The defendant was negligent, and
  2. As the result of the defendant's negligence, the plaintiff suffered serious emotional distress.2

2.1. Does a “direct victim” claim require a physical injury?

No. The question for a jury is whether the elements of a cause of action for negligence exist.

In other words, did the defendant owe the plaintiff a duty of care in California and, if so, did the defendant breach that duty?3

If the answers are "yes," the only question is whether a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, would be able to cope with the mental stresses placed on the plaintiff by the injury.4

3. The elements of a “bystander” claim for emotional distress

To prove negligent infliction of emotional distress as a bystander in California a plaintiff must show that:

  • The plaintiff is closely related to the victim,
  • The defendant negligently caused injury or death to the victim,
  • The plaintiff was present at the scene of the injury when it occurred and was aware that the victim was being injured, and
  • As a result of the injury, the plaintiff reasonably suffered serious emotional distress beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested witness.5

3.1. Who is a “close relative” under California law?

Absent exceptional circumstances, "close relative" means:

With the exception of domestic partners, California courts have not allowed recovery for bystander damages for emotional suffering by unmarried cohabitants.8

3.2. What does it mean to "witness" an accident?

To recover damages for bystander infliction of emotion distress, the plaintiff must have been both:

  1. Present at the scene of the injury-producing event at the time it occurred, and
  2. Aware that the event was causing injury to the victim.9

If the plaintiff heard the accident, but was not immediately aware it was causing injury, there is no basis for a recovery for emotional distress -- even if the missing knowledge was acquired moments later.10

This does not mean that the plaintiff must see the accident. It means, however, that the plaintiff must have been aware at the time of the accident, through some sensory means, that his or her relative was being injured.11

Have you suffered emotional distress in California? Call us for help…

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If you have suffered negligent infliction of emotional distress in California as the result of an injury to yourself or a loved one, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 or complete the form on this page to set up a time to discuss your case with one of our caring California injury attorneys.

We can also help you if you've been the victim of negligent infliction of emotional distress in Nevada.


Legal references:

  1. Molien v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (1980) 27 Cal.3d 916.
  2. See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1620. (Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress—Direct Victim—Essential Factual Elements).
  3. Marlene F. v. Affıliated Psychiatric Medical Clinic, Inc. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 583.
  4. Molien, note 1.
  5. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1621; Dillion v. Legg 68 Cal.2d 728 (1968); Thing v. La Chusa (1989) 48 Cal.3d 644.
  6. California Civil Code  § 1714.01.
  7. Thing, note 5.
  8. See, e.g., Elden v. Sheldon (1988) 46 Cal.3d 267.
  9. Thing, note 5.
  10. Ra v. Superior Court (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 142.
  11. Wilks v. Hom (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1264.

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