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Understanding the Florida Impact Rule for Emotional Distress Claims

Florida impact ruleMental and emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, anger, fear, and insomnia, are common experiences among those who have suffered a personal injury. Florida is one of just five remaining states that subscribe to something called the impact rule when weighing claims of emotional distress.

Also known as the physical impact rule, it requires plaintiffs who are seeking financial compensation for non-economic damages (namely, emotional distress) to prove they also experienced some physical impact or that their emotional injuries somehow physically manifested.

South Florida personal injury lawyers frequently request compensation for emotional distress as an element in injury lawsuits, but claims that solely involve emotional distress can be a bit trickier. This is not to say it is impossible, and the Florida Supreme Court has in recent years relaxed the guidelines for applying the impact rule. Still, it is important for anyone considering filing a claim for emotional distress in Florida to understand a bit about the legal standards that must be met.

Origins of the Florida Impact Rule

The impact rule in Florida dates back to the 1893 Florida Supreme Court ruling in International Ocean Telegraph Company v. Saunders. In that case, the plaintiff sued a telegraph company for mental pain and suffering for failure to promptly deliver an urgent telegram from a hospital urging him to come at once because his wife was dying. The telegraph company had the message for a full 60 hours before delivering it. By the time it was finally delivered, the plaintiff’s wife had been deceased for over 10 hours. The court held that where the sole claim was mental pain and suffering, damages would be nominal – the price of the message, at most.

The underlying idea is that emotional injuries, while very real, are also intangible and difficult to prove and thus should be tied to some evidence of physical harm.

Exceptions to and Clarification of the Impact Rule

Although the Florida Supreme Court and the state legislature have rejected numerous attempts to abolish the impact rule, they have carved out several exceptions. Among those are cases involving:

  • Ingesting contaminated food or beverages.
  • A psychotherapist who breaches their legal duty of patient privacy and confidentiality.
  • An entity that shares the results of an HIV test in violation of F.S. 381.004.
  • Victims of intentional torts (i.e., invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation).
  • Family members. In some cases under certain circumstances, courts have allowed family members to recover emotional distress damages without having to prove physical contact. An example would be a person who witnesses a close relative suffering a serious injury or wrongful death.
  • Freestanding torts, such as negligent stillbirth or wrongful birth. (These mostly occur when there is a special relationship, such as doctor-patient, school-student, etc.)

Some of the cases that clarified Florida’s impact rule were:

Champion v. Gray, Florida Supreme Court (1985). The court allowed a man to recover damages for the death of his wife who suffered a fatal heart attack after becoming so overwhelmed by the intense emotional devastation of seeing the body of her daughter, who was just killed by a drunk driver. The court ruled that there is a point at which the price of death or significant physical injury that is caused by psychological trauma causes too great a harm to impose the additional physical contact requirement.

Zell v. Meek, Florida Supreme Court (1995). In this case, a woman witnessed the death of her father by an anonymous bomber. The woman witnessed her dad pick up a small box left on the family’s doorstep and it exploded, killing him. The plaintiff did not suffer any physical injuries, but she did begin struggling with insomnia, depression, short-term memory loss, fear, nightmares and constantly reliving of the event. After nine months, she suffered an ulcer that led to a blockage in her esophagus that left her unable to swallow and with breathing difficulty. This was all attributed to the earlier trauma. The court held that despite the delay between the emotional trauma and her physical injuries, the Florida impact rule would not bar her claims.

Willis v. Gami Golden Glades, LLC, Florida Supreme Court (2007). A woman staying at a hotel in Miami was informed on arrival that there were no parking spots available for her in the hotel’s lot. A security guard for the hotel told her to park across the street. She told him she was concerned because it was dark and she was not familiar with the area, but the guard assured her it was safe. He refused to assist her further or even watch as she went to and from the location. As she exited her vehicle from the adjacent lot, a man put a gun to her head, robbed her of her purse, forced her to expose herself and patted her down and then stole her rental car to flee. In shock, she returned to the hotel lobby and the guard acted as if he had never seen her before. She went to the emergency room the following day and was soon after diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, panic attacks and depression, for which she received medication and treatment. The plaintiff sued the hotel for the negligent infliction of emotional damages. The trial court issued a summary judgment in favor of the defense (affirmed by the appellate court), citing the Florida impact rule. The Florida Supreme Court quashed that ruling, finding the victim was “touched” with both the gun and the assailant’s hands. Thus, even though there was no physical manifestation of that injury, her case was not barred by the impact rule (which the court declined to abolish).

None of these cases changed the fact that Florida courts still require either physical impact or some physical manifestation of emotional injuries to claim emotional distress damages. However, they did broaden the spectrum of the circumstances under which victims can prevail.

While the impact rule continues to face challenges, it persists for now and determining the circumstances that qualify for an exception can be complicated. If you are unsure whether you have grounds to pursue a civil case, our Fort Myers injury lawyers are available to help answer your questions.

If you are injured in the greater South Florida area, contact our injury attorneys at The Garvin Firm at 800.977.7017 for a free initial consultation.

Additional Resources:

Is General Negligence the New Exception to the Florida Impact Rule? 2015, By Stephan Krejci, Florida A & M University Law Review

More Blog Entries:

Why Does a Florida Injury Lawyer Work on a Contingency Fee Basis? Oct. 23, 2019, Fort Myers Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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