Burgess v. Superior Court
2 Cal.4th 1064, 9 Cal.Rptr.2d 615, 831 P.2d 1197 (1992)

  • Burgess delivered a baby and the obstetrician negligently caused the child to suffer brain damage. She sued for damage to the baby, but also for her own emotional distress.
    • The doctor argued that their duty was to the baby, not to the mother, so their liability was limited to the damage to the baby.
  • The Court found for Burgess.
    • The Court held that there are two classes of emotional distress claims:
      • Where the plaintiff is a bystander who has no preexisting relationship with the defendant.
        • See Thing v. LaChusa (771 P.2d 814 (1989)).
      • Where the plaintiff is in a relationship (here doctor-patient) and the claim is based on a breach of duty assumed by the defendant that arises out of the relationship.
    • The Court found that for special relationship claims like the one in this case, liability is based on the relationship between the parties.
      • Both parties understood that a physician owes a duty to a pregnant woman not to negligently damage her baby.
  • Basically, this case said that if you are in a preexisting relationship with someone (like you are their doctor), and are deemed responsible for their happiness, you can be held liable for emotional distress because you have a duty to care about their happiness.