In a recent case, Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC, 356 So. 3d 936 (La. 01/27/23), the Louisiana Supreme Court clarified the standard for recovery under a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
Generally, emotional distress damages are included in general damage awards when the plaintiff suffers a physical injury. However, in situations where the plaintiff views an event causing injury to another person, or comes upon a scene of the event soon thereafter but does not suffer from a physical injury, recovery for emotional distress damages may be available via a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Until recently, claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress had long been governed by Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 2315.6 and the Louisiana Supreme Court case of Lejeune v. Rayne Branch Hospital, 556 So. 2d 559 (La. 1990). To recover for emotional distress under this Article and the standard articulated in Lejeune, “the injured person must suffer such harm that one can reasonably expect a person in the claimant’s position to suffer serious mental anguish or emotional distress from the experience, and the claimant’s mental anguish or emotional distress must be severe, debilitating, and foreseeable.” La. C.C.P. Art. 2315.6(B).
Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC – Background
Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC arises out of an explosion and subsequent fire that occurred in the hydrocracker unit at Valero Refining, Meraux, LLC’s refinery in Meraux, Louisiana, on April 10, 2020. Following the accident, several residents in the surrounding area filed suit against Valero for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The explosion caused no substantial chemical release, there was no evacuation order or shelter-in-place issued, none of the plaintiffs experienced any physical symptoms, and no plaintiff received medical treatment. The plaintiffs sought damages only for general fear and anxiety due to the explosion.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari and consolidated the matters, in order to consider whether the lower courts erred in awarding the plaintiffs damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress in the absence of physical damage/injury.
Louisiana Supreme Court Ruling
The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Valero’s argument that recovery is permitted only when the defendant’s conduct is “outrageous.” Further, the Court found no merit to Valero’s argument that, to recover, a plaintiff must suffer “severe, debilitating emotional distress.” However, the Court agreed with Valero that public policy considerations require reasonable limits on recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Court emphasized that such public policy concerns are “especially acute” in claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress without physical damage/injury.
Louisiana law does not preclude recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress absent physical damage/injury. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court noted that, given the nature of such claims, “a trier of fact must be heedful of the goal of preventing spurious claims,” as not every occasion that causes harm generates liability and associated damages.
The Court found that no plaintiff put forth sufficient evidence that the mental disturbance suffered was “serious,” and that the plaintiffs failed to prove “the especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress arising from the special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.” Therefore, the Court determined that a reasonable factual basis did not exist to support the awards for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Thus, the lower courts manifestly erred.
Louisiana Supreme Court Clarifies the Standard
The Court held that a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress without physical injury is viable under Louisiana Civil Code article 2315(A), which provides: “Every act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.” In evaluating awards of damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Louisiana Supreme Court set forth the following standard:
- In addition to the elements for a claim for general damages, for negligent infliction of emotional distress claims absent physical damage/injury, a plaintiff must prove “the especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.”
- The actions of the defendant must constitute negligence.
- The plaintiff’s mental disturbance must be “serious.”
- Evidence of generalized fear or evidence of mere inconvenience is insufficient.
- Evidence of medical treatment is not required, nor is expert medical testimony; however, a plaintiff bears the burden of presenting sufficient evidence of the nature and extent of the mental anguish suffered that was caused by the defendant’s conduct.
- These guidelines must be applied with the policy considerations addressed by the Court. The Court noted that these public policy considerations require reasonable limits on recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In further clarifying this standard, the Court determined that a plaintiff seeking damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress is not required to prove the existence of a special, direct duty owed by the defendant. The Court also declined to impose a requirement of outrageous conduct on the part of a defendant, given that a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is a claim that, by definition, requires a plaintiff to prove negligence. Notably, the Court expressly rejected the application of the standard set forth in Lejeune, finding that the emotional distress suffered by a plaintiff need not be “reasonably foreseeable,” nor “severe and debilitating.”
Ultimately, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that the awards for negligent infliction of emotional distress were improper, because the plaintiffs failed to present evidence sufficient to support such an award. Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC is significant because by rejecting the standard for recovery set forth in Lejeune, the Louisiana Supreme Court articulated a new standard for recovery for claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress.