Illinois SC: Emotional distress claims don't require proof

Chris Rizo Nov. 5, 2009, 2:00pm

Thomas Kilbride

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline)-The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that emotional distress claims don't require expert proof.

The high court's Oct. 29 decision holds that the absence of medical testimony does not preclude testimony for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but goes to the weight of the evidence.

"We hold that expert testimony is not required to support a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress," Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote for the high court.

The original case was filed by Toni Thornton of Will County. She sued Dr. Francisco Garcini over her infant son's death and sought compensation for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Her son was born in 2000 prematurely in a breech position, at an approximate gestational age of 24 weeks. The baby, Jason Anthony Ebner, died when the nurses at the hospital were unable to complete the delivery. The doctor arrived at the hospital more than an hour later.

Thornton brought a medical negligence claim against the doctor, Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet, Ill., and the individual nurses. The lawsuit included an individual claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress from the delivery.

The case has been before a Will County trial court twice. Thornton claimed at trial that she suffered emotionally from laying in a hospital bed for more than an hour with her son partially delivered.

As a result, she said she was depressed, and could not eat or sleep.
At the first trial, the jury found in favor of the doctor and nurses, dismissing Thornton's claims against them. On the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the hospital, the jury awarded her $175,000.

She appealed, and the appellate court granted a new trial. At the retrial, the jury found in favor of the doctor on the plaintiff's wrongful-death and survival claims, but in favor of Thornton on her negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. The jury awarded her $700,000.

The appeals court affirmed the verdict, and the state Supreme Court upheld the decision in the case.

"Plaintiff, the infant's father, and plaintiff's mother all testified about plaintiff's behavior and emotional state following the event. The record sufficiently established that plaintiff suffered emotional distress," Kilbride wrote. "We hold defendant is not entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict due to the lack of expert testimony on the issue of plaintiff's emotional distress."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, told Legal Newsline that the unanimity of the decision speaks volumes.

"This is a very sad and complicated case but the opinion of the Supreme Court, with which all seven justices agreed, is strong enough indication that the opinion is correct," he said. "There are some very diverse views on the Illinois Supreme Court and when a case has gone through the appellate court and is unanimously agreed to by the members of the Supreme Court, there doesn't seem to be much room for disagreement."

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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