Appellate Court Ruling Shows Durability of Georgia’s “Impact Rule”

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment for a hospital on a bereaved mother’s claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, despite the hospital delivering the remains of the wrong child to the bereaved mother. Coon v. The Medical Center, Inc., 780 S.E.2d 118, 121 (Ga. Ct. App. 2015), reconsideration denied (Dec. 15, 2015). This harsh result underscores the durability of Georgia’s “impact rule,” which generally prevents claimants from recovering for purely emotional injuries.

In Coon, a woman delivered a stillborn child. The hospital inadvertently mislabeled the remains of Mrs. Coon’s baby, and as a result, released the remains of the wrong baby to a funeral home in Alabama. Two weeks later, the Georgia hospital discovered its error and the baby’s remains were exhumed. The funeral director went to the hospital to retrieve Mrs. Coon’s baby. Once again, the hospital messed up—when the director returned to the funeral home, he discovered that the cadaver bag only contained a blanket. When the remains were actually retrieved, Mrs. Coon’s baby was given a proper burial.

Mrs. Coon filed suit against the hospital seeking damages for the emotional distress she endured as a result of the hospital’s mix-ups. She further alleged that Alabama law, which is much more favorable to plaintiffs, ought to apply because the damages occurred across the state line. The trial court sided with the hospital, however, in determining that Georgia law applied and granted summary judgment against Mrs. Coon. Mrs. Coon appealed, contending the trial court erred by applying the wrong law state’s law and misapplied the “impact” rule.

Despite the atrocious mix-up, the Court determined that Georgia law applies based on a public policy exception to the general rule, which typically applies the substantive law of the place where the incident occurred, i.e., Alabama. In a split decision, the majority reasoned that the significant difference in outcome based on the application of Alabama law triggered the public policy exception and the trial court properly applied Georgia law.

With respect to the alleged misapplication of the “impact rule,” the Court disagreed with Mrs. Coon and affirmed the trial court. Under Georgia’s “impact rule,” recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress is allowed only where there is some “impact” on the plaintiff, and that impact must be a physical injury. There was clearly no physical impact on Mrs. Coon, however, she argued that the “pecuniary loss” exception applied. This exception allows such a claim where the plaintiff suffers a monetary loss resulting from the injury. The court found, however, that the funeral expenses did not result from her injury, i.e., the mental suffering, rather, the expenses arose from the hospital’s conduct.

The lesson: Georgia’s “impact rule” isn’t going anywhere. If ever there was a case that cried for an exception, it was this one. Nevertheless, both the trial court and the appellate court held that the bereaved mother could not present her claim to a Georgia jury because Georgia law recognized no claim under the circumstances of her case.

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