The Illinois Supreme Court has made it easier for personal injury lawyers and their clients to prove a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. In Thornton v. Garcini, 2009 WL 3471065, No. 107028 (Ill. Oct. 29, 2009), the Supreme Court held that “expert testimony is not required to support a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
Toni Thornton, individually and on behalf of the estate of her deceased infant son, brought a medical malpractice and wrongful death action against Silver Cross Hospital, her son’s obstetrician, and individual nurses relating to her baby’s death caused by delay in birth. Plaintiff’s son was born prematurely in a breech position at approximate gestational age of 24 weeks. During delivery, her son’s head became stuck in his mother’s vagina, with the rest of his body outside the vagina. Her son died when the nurses at Silver Cross Hospital were unable to complete the delivery, and the defendant obstetrician did not arrive at the hospital for 70 minutes.
Plaintiff also included an individual count against the defendants for negligent infliction of emotional distress, claiming that she suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the delivery. During the second trial against the defendant obstetrician only — plaintiff was granted a new trial because of errors in the first trial — the defendant doctor testified that after being informed of the partial delivery, he “took a shower” before going to the hospital, and plaintiff “waited over an hour, with the deceased infant partially delivered, until defendant arrived to complete the delivery.”
Plaintiff testified that she suffered severe emotional pain from this incident. Specifically, she stated that she was “depressed, and could not eat, or sleep” as she waited for 70 minutes with her baby partially delivered. She also testified that she has “thoughts of suicide” and is “always reminded of that hour and ten minutes that I sat there with him.” The infant’s father and plaintiff’s mother also testified to the effect the death had on the plaintiff.
However, no expert testimony was presented on plaintiff’s claims for emotional distress. The jury found in favor of the defendant on the wrongful death and survival claims, but found in favor of the plaintiff on the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, and awarded plaintiff $700,000 in damages.
The defendant appealed the verdict, arguing that the plaintiff was required to prove that her emotional distress was caused by the delay in delivering her son through expert witness testimony. The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed.
The Court found that the “existence or nonexistence of medical testimony [concerning emotional distress damages] goes to the weight of the evidence but does not prevent this issue from being submitted to the jury.” In other words, the Court held that “expert testimony, while it may assist the jury, is not required to support a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
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