Johnson v. Jamaica Hospital (N.Y. 1984)

Procedural History: A separate suit was brought on Kawana’s behalf. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss the parents’ action for failure to state a cause of action. The Appellate Division affirmed by a divided vote and certified the question for this appeal. Plaintiffs contend that the hospital owed a direct duty to them because it should have been foreseeable to defendant that any injury to Kawana would cause the parents mental distress.

Facts: Plaintiff’s daughter, Kawana, was born in defendant hospital. After mother was discharged, Kawana was held for further treatment. A week later when plaintiff came to visit, Kawana was discovered missing after 2 bomb threats earlier that day. The police recovered Kawana and she was returned to plaintiffs 4.5 months later.

Issue: Can plaintiff parents recover damages from defendant hospital for any mental distress or emotional disturbances they may suffer as a result of the direct injury inflicted upon their daughter by defendant’s breach of its duty of care to her?

Rules: In exceptional circumstances, there can be liability for resultant emotional injuries:

  • A hospital assumes a duty to transmit truthfully information concerning a relative’s death or funeral when sending messages.
  • There is a duty towards family when there is a mishandling of or failure to deliver a dead body with the consequent denial of access to the family.

Application: Except for exceptional circumstances, the court is reluctant to hold a direct duty for parents of hospital patients because to hold otherwise would be to invite the very sort of boundless liability for indirect emotional injury that we have consistently rejected.

Conclusion: A hospital does not directly owe a duty to parents whose child is in treatment at a defendant’s hospital.

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