Does Emotional Distress Constitute a Bodily Injury?

In August of 2002, nineteen-month old Daisy Ryder was tragically killed while exiting a parked car when she was struck by an oncoming vehicle. Both her mother and two-and-a-half year old brother witnessed the accident.

Following her death, Daisy’s parents (the Ryders) filed suit against the driver of the vehicle. In their complaint the Ryders claimed that the driver had negligently caused emotional distress to Mrs. Ryder and to the Ryder’s young son.

In addition, the Ryders filed a claim against USAA, the family’s underinsured motorist carrier. Though the suit against the driver and his insurance company was eventually settled, the Ryder’s case against USAA went to trial.

Case explores definition of “bodily injury”

At trial the court considered whether the Ryder’s claims for emotional distress could qualify as “bodily injuries” under USAA’s policy. The policy itself defined “bodily injury” as a “bodily harm, sickness, death or disease.” Applying this definition, the trial court concluded that the Ryder’s bystander claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress did not qualify as “bodily injuries” under the policy, and thus were not covered.

The Superior Court stated in its decision that, “[T]he term “bodily injury” as defined in the contract unambiguously does not include a claim for bystander emotional distress. The psychic distress that characterizes a claim for bystander recovery simply is qualitatively different tha[n] any of the four conditions that constitute “bodily injury.” The plain and unambiguous language in the USAA policy does not allow the meaning of that phrase to be expanded to include injuries that are other than “bodily,” that is, corporeal. Rather, the four conditions that are the definitional constituents of a “bodily injur[y]” all are characterized by physical harm or compromise to the body without reference to psychic damage.”

Plaintiffs appeal to broaden scope of compensable damages

On appeal the Ryders argued that the policy’s definition of “bodily injury” was ambiguous and therefore should be construed in their favor. The Court agreed that the policy’s definition was ambiguous, but declined to rule in favor of the Ryders on this basis. Instead the Court held that the term “bodily injury” COULD apply to the Ryder’s claims for emotional distress, if they could show that they had suffered serious emotional distress and that the distress constituted a diagnosable sickness or disease.

The term “sickness,” according to the Court’s argument, “is not restricted to physical maladies and may include a condition of the mind. Similarly, “disease” is defined in pertinent part as: “disorder or derangement (as of the mind, moral character, public institutions, or the state).” Id. at 648. Thus, conditions pertaining to the mind are expressly included within the definition of “disease.” The language of the USAA policy, through its provision of coverage for “bodily injury” that11 includes “sickness or disease,” extends coverage to sicknesses and diseases that are not corporeal.”

Team with our Maine personal injury lawyers to get full and fair compensation

In holding that emotional distress could constitute a bodily injury, provided that Ryders establish that the distress constituted a diagnosable sickness or disease, the Court expanded the scope of what injuries may qualify for insurance coverage. While this decision does not imply that emotional distress will always constitute a bodily injury under every policy, it does suggest the Courts willingness to find coverage in favor of innocent plaintiffs when possible, which is a good thing for Maine plaintiffs.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, or has otherwise been victimized by another’s negligence, please contact the Maine accident lawyers at Hardy, Wolf & Downing today for a free consultation. We will carefully review your case and give you a thorough and honest assessment of the damages you may be entitled to. We have a long history of securing substantial verdicts and settlements for clients in Lewiston, Portland, Bangor and throughout Maine. Let us put our 40+ years of experience to work for you and your family–call us today at 1-800-INJURED.