Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Zone of Danger: Physical Danger vs. Emotional Danger, Dillon v. Legg (1968)

This bicyclist is in the Zone of Danger, but what about the guy
who is filming him from behind? Is he going to suffer PTSD?
The Zone of Danger. It sounds like a carnival ride. Or a knock-off of a popular 1960s television show. In actuality, it is a real legal concept, and it has a major effect on whether or not we are liable for someone else's injury.

The Zone of Danger is typically defined as the area where a person is in actual physical danger due to the negligent behavior of another person. For example, if your neighbor is building a shoddy addition to his house without a permit from the city, you are in the Zone of Danger if you happen to be walking through the area where the addition would fall were it to collapse. If you are across the street when it collapses, watching and laughing from a safe distance, you are not in the Zone of Danger, and the neighbor is not liable if you strain your back from laughing too hard.

Enter the case of Margery Dillon and David Legg. On September 27, 1964, David Legg ran over and killed two year old Erin Dillon. Cheryl Dillon, Erin's older sister, was next to Erin when Mr. Legg hit her. The mother, Margery Dillon, was over 10 feet away from the girls at the time of the accident.

This incident occurred in Sacramento, California, and the Superior Court of Sacramento County ruled Mr. Legg's driving was negligent. They further ruled Cheryl Dillon could recover for damages because she was in the zone of danger. She literally could have been killed by Mr. Legg's driving. She feared for her life and suffered emotional difficulties as a result of seeing her sister die.

However, the Court ruled Margery Dillon, the mother, was not entitled to recover for damages because she was not in the zone of danger. Although she suffered significant emotional distress because she witnessed one daughter die and another daughter almost die, she was never in danger of dying herself. As such, the Court decided Mr. Legg was not responsible for her emotional damages.

Ms. Dillon appealed her case to the California Supreme Court, which reversed the Superior Court's judgment in 1968. The Supreme Court held the Zone of Danger Doctrine was "improperly restricted to those exposed to physical injury." They extended the Zone of Danger Doctrine to include individuals who were exposed to emotional injury as well. In their majority opinion, the court quoted Prosser (1964): "When a child is endangered, it is not beyond contemplation that its mother will be somewhere in the vicinity, and will suffer serious shock," (p. 353).

It is important to remember this ruling applies only to California, although it was instrumental in helping change other state laws regarding negligence for emotional damages and the zone of danger. Currently, some states still have laws stating emotional damages are only recoverable if the person has also sustained physical injury. There are other states that are "zone of danger states," such as California. Still other states are considered "foreseeability" states, where a person can recover for emotional damages if it was reasonably foreseeable that emotional suffering was going to be a likely outcome of the negligent act.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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