THE IMPACT OF THE IMPACT RULE–Emotional Distress Claims in Florida

Four Broward county children and their parents are suing an elementary school teacher, Blake Farrell Sinrod, and the Palm Beach County School Board, alleging that the children were sexually molested by Sinrod. Sinrod pled guilty to the charges of child abuse.

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The initial lawsuit was filed in 2006, but nearly five years later in 2011 the parents sought to amend the complaint by adding their own individual claims for the negligent infliction of emotional distress and loss of “filial consortium,” or the love and support of their children. Judge Jack Cox of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court dismissed the parents’ case, and the parents appealed to Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal.

Florida has one of the most complex and inconsistent laws in the country for claims of emotional distress. Confusing to not only lawyers in Florida for injured children but judges as well, it is called the “impact rule.” Generally speaking, under Florida law the legal threshold for asserting any claim for the negligent infliction of emotional distress is whether or not the claimant or plaintiff has suffered a “physical impact from an external source” or actually been touched in association with the claimed emotional injury. The emotional distress need not be caused by the “impact”; it simply must have occurred.

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One current exception to the impact rule that will survive a motion to dismiss is when the complaint of emotional distress is “manifested by physical injury” and the plaintiff actually witnessed or heard or arrived on the scene as the traumatizing event was occurring and that some manifested physical injury is evident “within a short time of the incident.”

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the parents’ claims; the Court reasoned that since the parents were not present while their children were being molested, did not see or hear the abuse. and did not stumble upon the scene of the crime as it was occurring, their claims did not qualify for the Impact Rule’s exception. You can read the Court’s opinion in Janie Doe v. Blake Sinrod and Palm Beach County School Board.

Respectfully, as both a parent and a personal injury lawyer for children in Florida, I disagree with both the court’s ruling and the law that it purportedly relies upon–because it fundamentally ignores the real emotional injuries of these children’s parents as well as failing to hold the defendants fully accountable for all the harm their actions caused.

In my opinion, if civil law is the only means by which a parent or child (or anyone else who is injured or suffers a loss due to the carelessness or even intentional misconduct of another) can seek justice–but the law fails to address and redress the injuries caused by such an act–then that law fails to promote justice. In other words, the “impact rule” that the School Board raised and the court subsequently relied upon in dismissing the parents’ claims is wrong because it serves as a legal shield that protects the wrongdoer at the expense of a victim.

I cannot imagine the horror these children and their parents have endured and will continue to suffer. I have no doubt their anguish is both significant and life changing. Based upon over 20 years of experience in Florida’s court rooms, I believe a jury would agree, too.

I propose that the “impact rule” be modified to provide an additional exception for the parent or caregiver of a minor child who is a victim, not to mention the victim in the case of a confessed child abuser employed by a public school. I urge these families and their lawyers to appeal this ruling to Florida’s Supreme Court, and I hope that one of our caring legislators will read this blog and make this modification a priority for our next session.

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