What is the “Impact Rule” in a Personal Injury Case?
Florida, unlike most other states in the U.S., adheres to the “impact rule” in personal injury cases. Also known as the Physical Impact Rule, the impact rule requires physical contact in order for victims to recover financial compensation for non-economic damages.
As we have covered in previous blogs, personal injury claims enable victims harmed by negligence to recover both economic damages and non-economic damages associated with their accidents and injuries. These may include:
- Economic damages – medical expenses, future medical needs, lost income, diminished earning potential, etc.
- Non-economic damages – pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of quality of life, and other emotional injuries.
In order to have a valid claim, victims must prove the at-fault party failed to uphold their duty of care (or responsibility to take reasonable measures in a given situation to avoid preventable harm) and that this breach of duty more likely than not caused their accidents and injuries (physical and / or emotional). Per Florida’s impact rule, they must also prove they suffered some sort of physical contact that led to their emotional injuries.
The impact rule is a common law requirement that dates back to an 1893 decision (Ocean Telegraph Co. v. Saunders) in which the court ruled a plaintiff’s emotional distress and injuries must flow from the physical injuries sustained in an impact. This requirement prevents false claims, as emotional harm is an intangible damage that is difficult to prove. Without a physical impact, a plaintiff could simply allege they were emotionally harmed without any actual or physical evidence of harm.
While the impact rule is an essential requirement in personal injury claims brought by victims, there are some exceptions made by Florida courts. These commonly include:
- Family members – Certain eligible family members may recover compensation for their emotional injuries without having had physical contact upon themselves in some situations. These include a person who witnesses a close relative suffering a serious physical injury or wrongful death, or family members who experience mental anguish, loss of support and consortium, and other emotional injuries when their loved ones experience serious injury or death.
- Asbestos exposure – In cases where there is no singular moment of trauma, such as when victims develop injuries caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos, courts have ruled that such exposure constitutes physical impact.
- Psychologist duty of care – In one notable Florida Supreme Court case, the court ruled that a patient had a cause of action, despite lack of physical impact, when a psychologist breached their fiduciary relationship with the patient.
- HIV status – The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have a valid cause of action following the negligent dissemination of a positive HIV status, even when the only claim is for emotional injuries.
Exceptions to the impact rule are narrow and are intended to provide rights only to those who suffer substantial and warranted emotional injuries. For example, the rule does not apply in cases involving intentional torts, including cases of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.
Understanding the impact rule is critical to understanding your rights as a victim, and whether you have a valid claim for compensation. If you have questions about pursuing compensation following a serious injury, or which to discuss your rights following the wrongful death of a loved one, contact Clark, Fountain, La Vista, Littky-Rubin & Whitman for a free case evaluation.