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Johnson v. New York

New York Court of Appeals
334 N.E.2d 590 (1975)


Facts

Emma Johnson had lived at a New York State hospital as a patient for ten years when another patient—who had the same name—died. The hospital pulled the wrong patient record, then telegrammed Emma’s sister Nellie, falsely announcing her sister’s death. In accordance with the telegram’s instructions, Nellie notified family members, and Emma’s daughter engaged an undertaker to collect the body and prepare it for a wake. Nellie and Emma’s daughter viewed the body before the wake and remarked that Emma’s appearance had changed. When the two returned later that evening for the wake, Emma’s daughter examined the body and verified it was not her mother. She became extremely distressed and had to be helped from the funeral, hysterical. Meanwhile, Emma remained alive and well in another wing of the hospital. Emma’s daughter could not work for the next 11 days and developed excessive anxiety, depression, and nightmares. At some point Nellie passed away, but her estate joined Emma’s daughter (plaintiffs) in suing the state for negligent infliction of emotional distress, recovery of the funeral expenses, and punitive damages. The trial court awarded Emma’s daughter $7,500 for funeral expenses and emotional harm but dismissed the aunt’s claim for insufficiency. The appellate court reduced the award to only pecuniary losses of $1,658, excluding any recovery for emotional harm. Emma’s daughter appealed.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Breitel, C.J.)

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