Recovery Of Money Damages For Bystander Emotional Distress

Iowa law allows plaintiffs in some instances to recover damages for emotional distress damages caused by witnessing a loved one’s serious injury or possible death.  This claim is known as “bystander emotional distress.”  In the 1981 Iowa Supreme Court case that first allowed bystander emotional distress claims, the court gave a stark example of such a situation – A parent who sees her child run over by a car is allowed to sue for the horror caused by witnessing that tragedy.

When determining whether a bystander is allowed to seek emotional distress damages because of witnessing a catastrophic event, such as a motorcycle accident, Iowa’s courts consider (1) whether the bystander was located near the scene of the accident; (2) whether the emotional distress resulted from a direct emotional impact from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence; and (3) whether the bystander and the victim were closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship.

Iowa’s courts are careful to ensure that the bystander’s claim is serious and has some guarantee of genuineness.  The law cannot compensate for every minor disturbance to a person’s mental wellbeing.  To be compensable, the bystander’s mental distress must be serious.  While mental distress may exist without objective physical symptoms, compensable mental distress should ordinarily be accompanied with physical manifestations of the distress.

In addition, a bystander emotional distress claim requires proof that a reasonable person in the bystander’s position would have reason to believe, and the bystander must believe, that the direct victim of the accident would be seriously injured or killed.  Not all injuries reach the level of severity necessary to give rise to a bystander emotional distress claim.  “Serious injury” means bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes serious permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.


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