How Does Georgia’s Impact Rule Work in Personal Injury Cases?

How Does Georgia’s Impact Rule Work in Personal Injury Cases?

The recovery for emotional distress following a physical injury caused by another person’s negligence in Georgia is limited to compensation for any mental suffering or emotional distress the plaintiff incurred as a consequence of the plaintiff’s physical injuries.

There are three elements to the Georgia impact rule:

  • a physical impact to the plaintiff;
  • the physical impact causes physical injury to the plaintiff; and
  • the physical injury to the plaintiff causes the plaintiff’s mental suffering or emotional distress.

In a recent Georgia case, a mother brought a personal injury action against another driver on behalf of her two daughters for emotional distress damages after a car accident. She filed a negligence action, claiming—in both her individual capacity and as the natural parent and legal guardian of her twin daughters—damages for emotional distress.

The trial court dismissed the case in favor of the other driver because the impact rule precluded the daughters’ recovery.

The Accident

The other driver admitted that she was at fault for an accident in which she pulled her car in front of the mother’s vehicle. The twins were passengers in the vehicle at the time of the accident.

After the impact, the other driver “blacked out for a little bit.” When she awoke, her car was facing oncoming traffic, and she drove across multiple lanes of traffic to a nearby convenience store with the help of some bystanders. The other driver left the convenience store in an ambulance, as her back was injured in the accident.

In her deposition, the mother testified that neither daughter suffered “any physical injury as a result of the accident.” She also stated that the twins, who were nine years old at the time, “were traumatized by the collision. They were each diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder and anxiety, and prescribed anti-anxiety medications. They continue to experience anxiety as passengers, as well as great fear for their mother’s safety when she is driving or riding in a car.”

About nine months after the accident, the twins saw therapist twice, and her treatment notes had no indication of any physical manifestation of injury from the accident. There was no indication that the twins suffered from rapid heart rate, chest pain, stomach pain, or headaches. However, the therapist noted that both girls acknowledged pretending to be physically ill to avoid riding the school bus. But again, nowhere in the therapist’s affidavit did she state the specific physical pain suffered by the twins at any time after the accident.

At trial, the other driver filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that the impact rule precluded a negligence claim for the girls because there was no evidence that they were physically injured as a result of the impact.

The trial court granted the partial summary judgment motion, based on the fact that the impact rule precluded a recovery for the girls. The mother appealed.

The Court of Appeals Opinion

On appeal, the mother argued that the impact rule didn’t apply in this case because it applies only to “negligent infliction of emotional distress” cases rather than “straightforward claims of negligence.” The Court of Appeals disagreed. Citing a decision from the Supreme Court of Georgia, Judge E. Trenton Brown III wrote in the opinion for a panel of the Court of Appeals that “it has long been established that the impact rule applies to claims “concerning negligent conduct.”

Judge Brown explained that there are three policy reasons traditionally given for having the impact rule and denying recovery for emotional distress unrelated to physical injuries: (i) fear, that absent impact, there’d be a flood of litigation of claims for emotional distress; (ii) concern for fraudulent claims; and (iii) perception that, absent impact, there’d be difficulty in proving the causal connection between the defendant’s negligent conduct and claimed damages of emotional distress.

Judge Brown wrote that Georgia’s impact rule has three elements, and a failure to meet any one of these requirements is fatal to a recovery. Relying upon the Court of Appeal’s decision in Warnock v. Sandford (2019), the mother asserted that the impact rule only applies if a plaintiff pleads a “negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.” But in that case, the Court stated:

[T]he impact rule does not apply to all claims concerning negligent conduct. To the contrary, the impact rule applies specifically to claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Judge Brown explained that Georgia law doesn’t support the conclusion in Warnock that the impact rule applies only to claims of “negligent infliction of emotional distress” rather than “straightforward claims of negligence and gross negligence.” Citing another decision, Judge Brown said the Supreme Court of Georgia examined the impact rule and determined that its benefits outweighed its shortcomings. The Supreme Court expressly “decline[d] to adopt any rule which might, in effect, create a separate tort allowing recovery of damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals disapproved the holding in Warnock that the impact rule can only be applied to cases in which “negligent infliction of emotional distress” was alleged in the complaint. As a result, the judgment of the trial court was affirmed. Eley v. Fedee, 2022 Ga. App. LEXIS 74 *; 2022 WL 418647 (Ga. App. February 11, 2022).

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