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Recovering Damages for Emotional Distress in Abuse of Corpse

After just six minutes of deliberation a jury found a Pennsylvania man guilty of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. The man killed is stepdaughter, had sex with her corpse, and filmed it. 

The stepdaughter's husband is suing the man for infliction of severe emotional distress on the husband and children. The husband is attempting to recover the cost of his wife's funeral, compensation for her lost wages, retirement benefits and punitive damages. As well as, the family's mental health counseling.

Generally, courts in Pennsylvania and most jurisdictions apply the impact rule when deciding to award damages for emotional distress.  The “impact rule,” bars recovery for fright, nervous shock or mental or emotional distress unless it was accompanied by a physical injury on the complaining party. Kazatsky v. King David Memorial Park, Inc., 515 Pa. 183, 191 (1987). 

Pennsylvania Courts allow for an exception to the impact rule if the individual claiming distress was in the zone of danger. The "zone of danger rule" allows for a party to recover damages for emotional distress if the plaintiff was in personal danger and feared impact of harm created by the negligent of internal acts of the defendant. Niederman v. Brodsky, 436 Pa. 401 (1970).

However, the Kazatasky court adopted the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by outrageous conduct, which could allow for a family member to recover for distress if the defendant's conduct was sufficiently outrages. Kazatsky, 515 Pa. at 195. In order for the family member to recover for this tort the family member must show the defendant's conduct was "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.

In Kazatasky the parents attempted to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress by outrageous conduct against a cemetery for failing to care for parent's children gravesites. Id. The court did not decided the case due to insufficient medical records but made it clear that if a plaintiff can pass the "outrageous" test the plantiff can recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by outrageous conduct. In the case of the murdered stepdaughter, the husband could recover for emotional distress if a court or jury views killing someone, having sex with their corpse, and filming it outrageous enough to go beyond all possible bounds of decency.   

Correll L. Kennedy

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