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Can I Sue a Doctor for Emotional Distress?

Medical malpractice is devastating. For victims and their families, receiving physical trauma is only the beginning. There is also the emotional anguish of suffering without proper medical care. Emotional trauma can even create additional physical symptoms.

What happens when medical malpractice causes emotional distress? Can the victim of the malpractice get compensated for the emotional distress? What about a family member who suffers from emotional distress because of medical malpractice occurring to a loved one?

It may be possible to receive compensation from a doctor for emotional distress. Our medical malpractice lawyers explain.

Is It Possible to Sue a Doctor for Emotional Distress in South Carolina?

Yes, South Carolina law recognizes emotional distress claims against doctors as part of a medical malpractice action. The victim of medical malpractice may claim emotional distress as a non-economic damages award allowed by S.C. Code § 15-32-210.

In addition, it may be possible for a family member to claim compensation for negligent infliction of emotional distress. However, it may be difficult for the family member to prove the elements of the claim required by South Carolina law, including being in close proximity to the victim perceiving the accident as it happened.

Emotional Distress as Part of a Medical Malpractice Claim

When medical malpractice occurs, the victim suffers physically as well as mentally. For the victim of medical malpractice, emotional distress is a recognized category of compensation. S.C. Code § 15-32-210(9) includes emotional distress in the list of non-economic damages that may be claimed.

However, medical malpractice claims are subject to damages caps for non-economic damages, including emotional distress. (S.C. Code § 15-32-220). These damages caps will likely apply to an emotional distress claim. Even so, the victim of medical malpractice may value and include emotional distress compensation as part of their medical malpractice claim.

Family member lawsuit for emotional distress after medical malpractice

Another issue arising in the context of medical malpractice is when it is a family member that suffers from distress because of what happened to their loved one. It is not the family member who has a physical injury because of medical malpractice. However, they may suffer so greatly emotionally because of what occurred that they manifest genuine physical symptoms.

The answer to whether the family member’s emotional distress can be compensated is a complex one. South Carolina law recognizes claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress in some circumstances. When applicable, the victim may claim compensation even though they have not suffered a direct physical injury. 

It may be difficult for a family member to satisfy the elements to make this claim in a medical malpractice setting. The plaintiff must be a bystander near the harm as it is happening. There are also other elements to satisfy, such as the close family relationship with the victim and the manifestation of physical symptoms. Kinard v. Augusta Sash & Door Co., 286 S.C. 579 (1985). 

Proving the close proximity of the plaintiff and witnessing the medical malpractice as it is occurring may be difficult for family members wishing to bring a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Family members rarely witness their family members receiving medical care – although they may witness procedures in a family practice setting, nursing care in a hospital setting, or childbirth, to name a few examples.

One positive note for plaintiffs is that South Carolina has not adopted the “zone of danger” requirement for negligent infliction of emotional distress cases. Other jurisdictions require the plaintiff to have been in the zone of danger of harm, which would likely preclude any claim based on the medical malpractice of a family member (See Vaillancourt v. Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, 425 A.2d 92 (Vt. 1980) in which a claim was denied because the victim’s husband was not personally in harm’s way). South Carolina has not imposed this requirement. Padgett v. Colonial Wholesale Distrib. Co., 232 S.C. 593 (1958); Bray v. Marathon Corporation, 347 S.C. 189 (2001). 

Although the door remains open for negligent infliction of emotional distress claims predicated on medical malpractice hurting a family member, the claim’s viability depends greatly on the specific facts and proximity of the family member at the time the medical malpractice is occurring.

Have you or a loved one suffered emotional distress because of medical malpractice? Let our experienced medical malpractice lawyers review every possible avenue for compensation. 

Contact us today for a personalized and confidential review of your situation.

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