Infliction of Emotional Distress

This post is from the non-Reed Smith side of the blog.

We understand that illnesses and injuries can be emotional; sometime extremely emotional and rightfully so. We understand that some treatments can add to the stress. We certainly understand that when a treatment results in complications or does not turn out as hoped, an already tense situation can become intense. We don’t deny the “personal” side of personal injury cases. But drug and device products liability cases are not infliction of emotional distress cases. Which is what the court found in Ripple v. Davol, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82867 (S.D. Fla. May 31, 2017).

Plaintiff brought most of the standard products liability causes of action – negligence, strict liability, failure to warn, breach of implied warranty, negligent misrepresentation, and fraud – but also included claims for both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.  Id. at *2. The court dismissed the warranty claim for lack of privity, id. at *10-11, and misrepresentation and fraud for failure to satisfy the heightened pleading requirement. Id. at *11-13.

On infliction of emotional distress, the court explained that under either an intentional or negligence standard, plaintiff has to allege “conduct so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Id. at *7 (citations omitted). Just read that again and let it sink in. We think it is immediately apparent that such a claim does not belong in a drug or medical device case. We are talking about products that had to be approved by the FDA before being sold and the levels of testing, analysis, monitoring, and reporting that goes along with that. Satisfying all the FDA requirements and then marketing a medical device that can only be obtained via a licensed surgeon who must also implant the device is hardly an atrocity that would offend the bounds of decency.

Plaintiff’s only response was that her infliction of emotional distress claims were based on defendant’s failure to properly test or properly design the device. Id. at *8. The opinion contains citations to the type of conduct that does rise to the “utterly intolerable” level and the horrors described even briefly in the parentheticals make it abundantly clear that failure to test/design doesn’t even come close. Id. at *8-9.

If plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient, “any manufacturer who is liable for strict products liability or negligence is also liable for the infliction of emotional distress upon those damaged by the product.” Id. at *9. An infliction of emotional distress claim cannot be solely premised on ordinary products liability and negligence. It must involve a degree of “physical contact” or “severely threatening behavior.” Id. at *10. Neither of which is present in this case or in any drug/device case (at least that we can think of). With no supporting case law and no supporting facts, the court dismissed the claims with prejudice.

We don’t see a lot of infliction of emotional distress claims in this arena, probably for the very reasons discussed in Ripple. But the court’s explanation for why these claims are not viable is among the best we’ve seen.