Indiana Court of Appeals Decides Issue of First Impression on Recovery of Emotional Distress Damages under Indiana’s Bystander Rule for Home Gas Explosion Fire

In a matter of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals recently reviewed the applicability of Indiana’s Bystander Rule for emotional distress damages arising from a home gas explosion and fire. In Ceres Sols. Coop., Inc. v. Estate of Bradley, Ceres Solutions Cooperative, Inc. (“Ceres”) negligently failed to check for gas leaks in refilling a propane tank at Kenneth Bradley’s (“Bradley”) home. Bradley lived in the home with his wife Kathy and son Eric. In the early morning after the refill, while Bradley was at work, Eric turned on a lamp next to his bed, which caused an explosion, surrounding him in a ball of fire. Part of the home’s roof collapsed and there was rubble and fires around the home. Eric was severely burned but escaped. Kathy was killed.

Bradley filed a lawsuit against Ceres which included a claim for his emotional distress. Typically, to recover emotional distress damages in Indiana, under Indiana’s Modified Impact Rule, a claimant must suffer a direct impact by another’s negligence and by virtue of that involvement suffer an emotional trauma serious in nature and of a kind and extent normally expected to occur in a reasonable person. However, Indiana has also adopted the Bystander Rule, which is an exception to the Modified Impact Rule, that allows emotional distress damages when a claimant establishes a direct involvement with the incident. To recover emotional distress damages under Indiana’s Bystander Rule, courts consider as a matter of law three factors: (1) the severity of the victim’s injury (serious injury or death to a victim), (2) the relationship of the plaintiff to the victim (a close familial relationship with the victim), and (3) the circumstances surrounding the claimant’s discovery of the victim’s injury (direct observation of the incident or its immediate “gruesome aftermath,” rather than learning of the incident by indirect means). To satisfy the third factor, (A) the bystander claimant must come on the scene at or immediately following the incident, (B) the claimant must not have been informed of the incident before coming on the scene, and (C) the scene and victim must be in essentially the same condition as immediately following the incident.

Here, about three hours after the explosion, Bradley was driving home from work when he came upon a roadblock, around three-quarters of a mile from his home. He could see flames coming from his home. He asked the lady at the roadblock, who was a local volunteer firefighter’s wife, whether his wife made it out of the house, but she did not know, she had no radio, and she had not been provided any information as to what was occurring. Bradley drove to his home and saw “big and steady” flames. Bradley saw his son Eric on a gurney with a blanket on and visible burn injuries to his face. Eric told Bradley he did not know where Kathy was, and although firefighters continued to search for her, the flames got bigger every time they dug, so they had to wait. The firefighters eventually found Kathy and made Bradley leave the scene so they could remove her.

Ceres filed a motion for partial summary judgment in the trial court arguing Bradley could not recover emotional distress damages as to either Eric or Kathy. After a hearing, the trial court granted Ceres’ motion as to Eric but denied Ceres’ motion as to Kathy. Bradley appealed the decision and Ceres cross appealed. Ultimately, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with Bradley and affirmed the trial court’s denial of Ceres’ motion as to Kathy and reversed the grant of partial summary judgment for Ceres as to Bradley’s claim for emotional distress damages as to Eric.

The only issue on appeal was the third factor relating to the circumstances surrounding Bradley’s discovery of Eric and Kathy’s injuries. First, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded the explosion and fire were not separate injury-producing events and that the injury-producing event in this case was ongoing when Bradley arrived on the scene. Although Bradley arrived hours after the explosion itself, when Bradley arrived the flames were “big and steady” and got bigger every time the firefighters dug. Eric was still on the scene and Kathy had not yet been located. Second, the Court concluded Bradley was not informed of the incident by indirect means before coming on the scene. Bradley was coming home from work when he came on the scene, he could see the fire from the roadblock, and he received no specific details from the lady at the roadblock. Third, the Court concluded the scene, Eric, and Kathy were in essentially the same condition as immediately following the incident. As to Eric, the Court noted Eric had not been removed from the scene and Eric’s injuries (though not all of them) were visible to Bradley. In the Court’s view, it was not necessary for Bradley to have been able to view all of Eric’s injuries. As to Kathy, the Court noted that Bradley reasonably believed Kathy was still in the home when he arrived on the scene, and Bradley did not have to view Kathy’s body in order to recover emotional distress damages as to her. The Court reasoned that the “sudden sensory observation” required to show direct involvement does not prevent recovery for bystanders who do not actually view the body in cases involving fires. The Court limited its holding to serious injuries or death resulting from fires.

Having concluded Bradley satisfied all the requirements regarding his discovery of Eric’s injury and Kathy’s death, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court as to its denial of Ceres’ motion for partial summary judgment as to Kathy, reversed as to the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment on Ceres’ motion as to Eric, and remanded the case back to the trial court.

You can read the full opinion here.

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