Defendants ignored these instructions and failed to provide adequate supervision of Mr. Schachter. (Para. 18). During the first forty-eight hours of his stay at Moss, Mr. Schachter fell out of his wheelchair, resulting in his severe injury. (Para. 19). Defendants continued to supervise Mr. Schachter inadequately during the remainder of his treatment at Moss, and, at various times, provided Mr. Schachter with improper medication. (Paras. 19, 30).
Ms. Schachter experienced severe emotional distress as a result of defendants' intentional and reckless conduct in treating her son. (Para. 32) On that basis, she seeks damages under Pennsylvania law for intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Para. 31). The complaint requests $ 20 million for injuries sustained by Mr. Schachter, and $ 5 million for injuries sustained by Ms. Schachter.
For the purposes of defendants' motions to dismiss, the plaintiffs' allegations are assumed to be true. See, e.g., Labov v. Lalley, 809 F.2d 220 (3d Cir. 1987). The central issue raised by defendants' motions is whether Pennsylvania law permits a mother to recover for emotional distress caused by the willful or reckless medical treatment of her son. To reach this issue, this court must determine the circumstances under which a third party may recover for the emotional distress that results from conduct directed at another party. More particularly, this court must decide whether a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Superior Court has eliminated all barriers to third party emotional distress claimants where the conduct complained of is intentional rather than negligent.
Over the past twenty years, Pennsylvania courts have addressed the problem of emotional distress to a "third party" by developing a number of intricate rules that have been subject to continuous refinement. Prior to 1970, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania applied the so-called "impact rule" which allowed a person to recover for emotional distress only if the distress "was accompanied by a physical injury or impact upon the complaining party." Kazatsky v. King David Memorial Park, 515 Pa. 183, 527 A.2d 988, 992 (Pa. 1987) (citations omitted). The court subsequently adopted the less restrictive "zone of danger" requirement that permitted a person who was not physically injured to recover if the person nonetheless was within "the zone of danger" created by the defendant's conduct. See e.g., Niederman v. Brodsky, 436 Pa. 401, 261 A.2d 84 (1970). More recently, the Court has apparently authorized recovery for emotional distress if a third party actually witnesses a severe injury to a close relative. See Sinn v. Burd, 486 Pa. 146, 404 A.2d 672 (1979).
None of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions formulating limitations on third-party recovery for emotional distress has distinguished between negligent and intentional conduct. Plaintiffs argue, however, that these limitations apply only to circumstances of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiffs rely on a recent decision by the Superior Court, Hackett v. United Airlines, 364 Pa. Super. 612, 528 A.2d 971 (1987), that remarked, in dicta, that the impact rule -- the predecessor of the "zone of danger" requirement -- is inapplicable to cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress. On this basis, plaintiffs contend that there is no barrier at all to third-party claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
To assess plaintiffs' claim, I will first discuss the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law and then examine the applicability of Pennsylvania's third-party recovery rules to that tort.
The Tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Pennsylvania's jurisprudence regarding the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress is a hazardous thicket.
Within the past year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Superior court have issued conflicting opinions as to whether the cause of action exists at all.
Assuming, for present purposes, that the tort is viable in Pennsylvania,
there remains the further question whether a third party may recover for distress caused by intentional conduct directed at another person.
Third-party Recovery for Emotional Distress in Pennsylvania
In Hackett v. United Airlines, supra, the Superior Court indicated that third-party claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress are not hedged about by impact rules or zones of danger. The Superior Court affirmed the Court of Common Pleas' ruling that the plaintiff could not recover for the negligent mishandling of a relative's corpse. In reaching this decision, the court relied on another case involving the mishandling of a corpse, Papieves v. Lawrence, 437 Pa. 373, 263 A.2d 118 (1970), one of the first cases in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed
a cause of action under Pennsylvania law for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Hackett court maintained that Papieves allowed recovery for the distress of a third party not as a result of the special circumstances involving the disturbance of a corpse, but on the basis that the defendant's conduct was intentional:
Clearly, then, the Supreme Court's rejection of the impact rule in Papieves did not hinge upon the fact that the cause of action before it involved the mishandling of the dead, but upon the fact that an intentional tort was being alleged. The impact rule, and its modifications, only apply to negligence actions. 528 A.2d at 974.