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New York Court Rules Stepparent not “Immediate Family” for Purposes of Recovery of Emotional Distress Damages Under Zone-of-Danger Rule

Emotionally distressed woman crouched with hand on head on sofa

Earlier this year, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York upheld the dismissal of a case brought by a woman who witnessed her stepfather’s fatal injuries after being struck by a car. The crux of the court’s ruling was that the woman could not recover because the relationship of the woman to her stepfather did not fit the definition of “immediate family.”

This case involved application of the “zone-of-danger” rule. Under this doctrine, a person who witnesses the death or serious injury of an immediate family member can recover compensation for emotional distress, but only if the plaintiff herself was in the “zone of danger,” meaning that she was threatened with bodily harm from the defendant’s negligence, even though she was not herself physically harmed in the incident. The idea is that if you are in the “zone of danger,” then the defendant has breached a duty owed to you and is liable for damages, including emotional distress.

As mentioned above, the plaintiff in the case of Thompson v. Dhaiti was the stepdaughter of the person injured. As the plaintiff was standing on the sidewalk outside a barbershop, a two-car collision occurred in the street, and one of the cars jumped onto the sidewalk, struck her stepfather and pushed him through the barbershop window, pinning him to a chair. He died a few days later from his injuries.

Even though the plaintiff had lived with her stepfather since she was four years old, he had financially supported her for the majority of her life, and he was the only father figure she had ever known, the court refused to recognize the step relationship as falling within the “immediate family” for purposes of the zone-of-danger rule. The Appellate Division therefore upheld the dismissal of the Kings County case.

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