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When An Infant's Death Is Not Enough: How Liability Has Changed Over The Years (Warrington v. Waube 1935)

 Is it reasonable to assume the person who witnessed this accident might be traumatized?

Is it reasonable to assume the person who witnessed this accident might be traumatized?

In a previous post, I have discussed the Zone of Danger and how a driver's liability extends beyond the physical proximity to an auto accident. Most famously, a case from 1965 (Dillon v. Legg) extended a driver's responsibility for damages from only those individuals at risk of physical danger to those at risk of emotional distress as well. In the Dillon case, a mother was able to collect damages from a negligent driver because she witnessed the driver strike and kill her daughter with his car. Presumably, she developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing the accident.

The idea that the zone of danger could extend to include emotional damages for an individual who did not actually fear for his/her own life was groundbreaking in 1965. Today, it seems obvious.

In 1935, however, courts had a very different opinion than they do today. On March 24 of 1934, Susie Waube witnessed Amber Warrington run over and kill Ms. Waube's infant daughter. Ms. Waube was terribly sick at the time, and she was so distraught over her daughter's death that she retreated to her bed and died several weeks later. Her attorney successfully argued that Ms. Waube's death was a direct result of the Ms. Warrington's negligent driving and the driver was found to owe Ms. Waube's husband damages due to wrongful death.

Ms. Warrington appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who heard the case in November of 1934. In January of 1935, the Court overruled the lower court. The Court "balanced the social interests involved in order to ascertain how far a defendant's duty and a plaintiff's right must justly and expediently have been extended." It was the Wisconsin's Supreme Court's ruling that a plaintiff was not entitled to recover damages "for physical injuries sustained by one out of the range of ordinary physical peril as a result of the shock of witnessing another's danger."

In other words, because Susie Waube sustained physical injuries (in this case, death), only due to the shock of watching her daughter's demise, the driver of the car was not legally responsible. The Court's ruling made it clear that Ms. Waube was not in any physical danger as a result of the accident, and that lack of physical danger absolved the driver of responsibility for Ms. Waube's death.

What mental health professionals understand now is that it does not matter if a person is in actual physical danger--severe anxiety, depression, and negative physical health effects can be caused by witnessing a terrible accident. We don't have to be so close to the accident that we might get hurt by the car in order to suffer significant damages. Three decades after Waube v. Warrington, The Dillon v. Legg case was a big step toward courts gaining a crucial understanding of the importance of emotional pain and the full extent of the risks caused by negligent drivers.