An evenly divided Supreme Court has affirmed the Superior Court’s holding that an emotional or mental distress claim by a physically uninjured bystander, who witnessed a family member get hit and killed by a car, is found to be its own “bodily injury” so as to trigger coverage.
On January 21, 2014, regarding the Superior Court decision in Lipsky v. State Farm, the Pennsylvania Supreme Count entered a one page order affirming the Superior Court and stated, “the order of the Superior Court is affirmed by operation of law, as the votes among eligible Justices are equally divided.”
On October 7, 2006, Joseph White struck and killed pedestrian Benjamin Lipsky in the immediate presence of his father Martin and his two brothers, Daniel and Elie. In addition the claims brought by the Estate of Benjamin, Martin, Daniel and Elie brought claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress from witnessing the fatal accident. After resolution of the decedent’s claims, the parties agreed to litigate the issue as to whether the NIED claims of each witness constituted an “original ‘bodily injury’ under the State Farm Policy” qualifying each witness to potentially recover his own “each person” liability limit, subject to the aggregate limits in the Policy.
The Philadelphia County trial court held the language of the policy was ambiguous and the definition was “susceptible to an interpretation that reasonably includes the Lipsky’s NIED claims.” State Farm appealed to the Superior Court.
The Superior Court noted that the State Farm Policy has no language that provided a different meaning for “bodily injury to a person” versus “bodily harm” or “physical injury” as noted in the NIED case law. The Court noted that the claims of “physical complaints” and “great detriment and loss” from their mental and emotional condition bring their NIED claims within the “bodily injury to a person” definition of “bodily injury” in the State Farm Policy. In affirming the trial court, the Superior Court did not opine that the State Farm Policy was ambiguous, but read it to be broadly inclusive of individuals other than just the impact victim.
The Superior Court held that the claims were not “resulting from” Benjamin’s bodily injury. The Court held the three Lipsky witness claimants each had their own original injuries entitling each witness to his own “each person” liability limit under the State Farm policy.
The Court held, “the policy here does not permit the interpretation that bystander emotional distress injuries belong to the class of “injuries resulting from [the impact victim’s] bodily injuries. As we therefore conclude that the State Farm policy language as issue does not bring the Lipskys’ bystander NIED claims within Benjamin’s “each person” $100,000 liability limit, the Lipsky’s are each entitled to recover for his injuries according to his own “each person” liability limit…”
This opinion gives rise to the possibility that close family members, who are not physically impacted in the accident, but contemporaneously observe the accident, may bring their own claim for NIED and be afforded their own “per person” liability limit.