Court Turns Away Plaintiffs’ Mental Distress Claims After Chemical Release in St. Gabriel

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as we have previously explored, occurs when the defendant purposefully engages in extreme or outrageous conduct with the goal of seriously upsetting the plaintiff. A different case is the scenario involving the plaintiff’s mental distress that results from the defendant’s negligent conduct. Commonly, a plaintiff can successfully recover for a claim of negligent infliction of mental distress when the distress arises out of a physical injury that is related to the defendant’s negligence. Without physical injury, however, a plaintiff is far less likely to recover. The case of Taylor v. Novartis Crop Protection, Inc. provides an example.

On the evening of July 18, 1999, Novartis Crop Protection Corporation’s facility in St. Gabriel released industrial ammonia into the air for approximately 15 minutes. Following the release, several hundred individuals who were present in or owned property around the St. Gabriel area filed a suit for damages against Novartis. The complaint alleged that as a result of the chemical release, the plaintiffs suffered “burning eyes, itching, burning skin, breathing difficulties, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, anxiety, and fear for their physical well being.” The complaint also stated that the incident caused considerable fear, anguish, discomfort, and inconvenience to the people in the communities” surrounding the Novartis facility. Novartis filed a motion for dismissal for those plaintiffs who were located outside of the “zone of danger” agreed upon by experts from both sides and who therefore could not have been exposed to the ammonia. The affected plaintiffs responded that their claim was not for physical exposure but for “mental anguish, emotional distress, inconvenience, and fear and fright.” The trial court entered a judgment dismissing all plaintiffs who were outside of the “zone of danger,” and those plainitiffs appealed.

In its analysis, the First Circuit Court of Appeal reaffirmed that under Louisiana law “a defendant will not be held liable for [damages] where its conduct was merely negligent and caused only mental or emotional disturbance unaccompanied by physical injury.” The narrow exception to this rule is where the plaintiff can demonstrate “special circumstances,” which must be “more than minimal inconvenience worry.” The court noted that the only special circumstances cited by the plaintiffs was a prior release of ammonia that occurred in 1999 and which required the evacuation of a school. But the court concluded that the prior incident did not rise to the level of “special circumstances” as required by Louisiana jurisprudence. (Examples of sufficient circumstances from case law include the negligent transmission of an erroneous message about a loved one’s death; the mishandling of corpses; and damaging property while being observed by the plaintiff. See Moresi v. State for further discussion.) Further, the court noted that the plaintiffs failed to offer any evidence to show they had “suffered from genuine and serious mental distress.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the plaintiffs whose claims included only mental distress.

This case further reinforces the fact that courts generally look unfavorably upon claims for mental or emotional distress when there is no physical manifestation of the injury. This may be due to the fact that mental harm is difficult to measure, as well as the potential for false claims.

If you have been injured due to someone’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you understand all the types of claims you may have available.