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Mental Anguish Claims In Property Damage Cases

Occasionally, a plaintiff files a lawsuit seeking damages only for an injury to property, but not to the person. These plaintiffs seek to maximize their recovery and, therefore, invent creative methods for damage recovery. For example, plaintiffs commonly assert a claim for mental anguish damages. Very little support exists for such claims, however, where the only actual damage is to property. In fact, since the early 1990s, Texas courts continue to narrow the scope of recovery for mental anguish damages in this context.

Many recent Texas decisions relating to mental anguish claims in a property damage context originate from the Texas Supreme Court.s decision in Boyles v. Kerr, 855 S.W.2d 593 (Tex. 1993). This well-known case involved a defendant boyfriend who video-taped he and his girlfriend, the plaintiff, having sexual intercourse. The defendant then played the tape for many of his friends. The plaintiff sued the defendant alleging, among other things, negligent infliction of emotional distress and sought mental anguish damages in connection with this claim. The Texas Supreme Court reviewed the case to determine whether such a claim existed under Texas law. The Court ultimately determined that Texas law does not recognize a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Id. at 597. The Court, however, cautiously worded its opinion. "[W]e hold only that there is no general duty not to negligently inflict emotional distress. Our decision does not affect a claimant.s right to recover mental anguish damages caused by defendant.s breach of some other legal duty." Id. [emphasis added] In fact, the Court sought to preserve the status quo and ensure that claims that historically enabled recovery of mental anguish damages and those that did not remained unaffected. Id. For example, the Court emphasized that bystanders maintained the right to recover emotional distress damages as a result of witnessing a serious or fatal accident, but that mental anguish damages could not be recovered in negligent misrepresentation cases or for violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, absent proof of a willful or grossly negligent violation. Id. at 597-8.

After the Court.s decision in Boyle v. Kerr, other Texas courts have been faced with varying scenarios where plaintiffs seek to recover mental anguish damages. Many plaintiffs assert mental anguish claims on the basis of a violation of "some other legal duty." However, where the only injury is to property, Texas courts express strong disapproval for mental anguish damage awards. City of Tyler v. Likes, 962 S.W.2d 489 (Tex. 1997); Seminole Pipeline Co. v. Broad Leaf Partners, Inc., 979 S.W.2d 730 (Tex.App..Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no writ).

In City of Tyler v. Likes, the plaintiff suffered damage to her house after floodwaters engulfed the lower floor of the house. The plaintiff sued the City of Tyler for negligently constructing and maintaining the culverts surrounding her property because the culverts had diverted the water onto her property. The Plaintiff, however, suffered no physical injury in connection with the flooding incident. Nevertheless, the Plaintiff sought recovery of mental anguish damages. In reviewing the case, the Texas Supreme Court returned to its ruling in Boyles v. Kerr that Texas does not recognize a general legal duty to avoid negligently inflicting mental anguish. City of Tyler, 926 S.W.2d at 494. The Court noted, however, that "[w]hile negligently inflicted anguish may be an element of recoverable damages when the defendant violates some other duty to the plaintiff, this depends on both the nature of the duty breached and the quality of proof offered by the plaintiff." Id. [emphasis added] In this instance, the plaintiff was unable to demonstrate that she suffered any physical injury, that the City had acted maliciously or intentionally or that any special relationship existed between herself and the City, any of which would have permitted recovery of mental anguish damages. Thus, the Court held that "mental anguish based solely on negligent property damage is not compensable as a matter of law." 497.

The Court in the Seminole Pipeline decision took an even stronger position in relation to mental anguish claims in property damage situations. In that case, the defendants were responsible for an explosion that damaged the plaintiffs. property. The explosion arose from an underground salt-dome storage facility and pipeline pumping station that was maintained by the defendants. In short, the Court found that the defendants had been grossly negligent in maintaining the pipeline and the underground facility. However, when it addressed the issue of mental anguish damages sought by the plaintiffs, the Court denied this relief. Specifically, the Court held that "where a claim of mental anguish is based solely upon property damage resulting from gross negligence, recovery is contingent upon evidence of some ill-will, animus, or design to harm the plaintiff personally." Id. at 757 (emphasis added). In that case, the Court found that the defendants were both grossly negligent and had acted unconscionably, but that plaintiffs had "presented no evidence to suggest that [defendants] actions were motivated by animus, hostility, malevolence, or ill-will." Id.

Texas courts increasingly resist permitting mental anguish damage claims in these scenarios. Efforts by plaintiffs to circumvent these restrictions will, of course, continue, but strong case law supports summary judgments on these issues at this time. Where these claims can be eliminated, recovery by the plaintiff can be limited to the value of the damages to the property itself, often a sum less than the mental anguish damages sought by the plaintiff.

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