Pennsylvania Ruling: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

This month, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion clarifying the requirements for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In Taylor v. Albert Einstein Medical Center, No. 33 E.D. Appeal Docket 1999, slip op. (May 17, 2000) (Flaherty, C.J.), the Supreme Court rejected a jury verdict finding intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court had denied a defense motion to set aside that portion of the verdict, and that ruling had been upheld by the Superior Court acting in its intermediate appellate court role.

In Taylor, consent had been obtained from the mother of a 16-year-old minor to perform a diagnostic heart catheterization. At trial it was disputed whether the consent was limited to the more experienced of two doctors. The patient died during the procedure while it was being performed by the less-experienced doctor. The jury found that negligence in performing the procedure was not a substantial factor in causing the death, but it also found the conduct of the doctor to have been outrageous and to have caused emotional distress to the mother. At the time of the procedure, the mother had been in the hospital, but not in the operating room.

The Supreme Court noted that it had never expressly recognized a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress and, therefore, it had never formally adopted section 46 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts entitled "Outrageous Conduct Causing Severe Emotional Distress." In the past it had, however, cited this section as setting forth the minimum elements for this cause of action.

With respect to conduct directed at a third person, such as the mother in Taylor, and in addition to the standard that the defendant intentionally or recklessly caused severe emotional distress, section 46(2) sets forth two different requirements, depending on whether the conduct is directed at someone who is a family member. If the third person is not a family member, there must be bodily harm as well as emotional distress. If the third person is a family member, there is no requirement of bodily harm. In either situation, the emotionally injured person must have been present when the underlying conduct toward the third person occurred.

While it did not expressly adopt the requirements of section 46(2), the Supreme Court clearly indicated that a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress will be recoginzed in Pennsylvania. As with a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress, however, the emotional injury must have occurred in the presence of the person at whom the underlying conduct is directed.