The law in all states allows a person who is injured in a gas explosion to seek to recover damages for their physical injuries. An injured person can also assert claims for the emotional trauma caused by those physical injuries. But what about the bystander who has suffered no physical injury?
For this type of case, most states will allow bystander recovery in limited circumstances. In a case decided in January of this year, the Appellate Court of Indiana allowed a bystander who came to the scene of a propane explosion and fire to assert a claim for emotional distress damages. The case is Ceres Solutions Cooperative v. Estate
Explosion & Fire
The incident occurred at the home of Kenneth and Kathy Bradley. Ceres Solutions Cooperative supplied propane to the home. On July 12, 2019, a Ceres employee filled the propane tank, but did not conduct a leak check. While the circumstances are not clear from the court opinion, Ceres did not dispute the claim that the failure to conduct a leak check was negligent. The tank may have been empty.
Later that day, Kenneth left for work at a night shift job. Kathy and their son, Eric, remained at the house. At about 2:30 a.m., Eric turned on a lamp next to his bed. This ignited a propane explosion. Eric was surrounded by a ball of fire, and then blacked out.
When Eric came to, he saw that the roof of the house had collapsed, and there were small fires around him. He was severely burned. He exited the house but could not find his mother, and so he returned to the house. Several hours later, at about 5 a.m., John Bauman was driving through the area and noticed the residence on fire and debris across the road. He called 911 and went to the house, where he found and assisted Eric.
Volunteer firefighters quickly began to arrive. They set up a roadblock at an intersection about three quarters of a mile from the house. Kenneth Bradley came upon the roadblock at about 5:20 a.m. as he was driving home from work. From this vantage point, he could see the flames and could tell they were coming from his house. He asked whether his wife and son had made it out of the house. Firefighters at the roadblock did not know. They allowed Kenneth to proceed to the scene.
When Kenneth arrived, the house was fully engulfed in flames. He saw Eric on a gurney with a blanket covering him. He observed Eric’s facial burns and asked Eric if he knew where Kathy was. Eric did not know. Firefighters searched for Kathy in the home, but heavy flames impeded their efforts. At about 7:30 a.m., they were able to find Kathy’s body, and at that point they made Kenneth leave the scene so that they could remove the body. Kenneth never saw Kathy’s body in the home or as it was being removed from the home. Kenneth filed suit against Ceres. Among other things, he claimed emotional distress damages because he saw his son badly injured and knew his wife was inside the burning structure. Ceres claimed that such damages were not recoverable in this situation under Indiana law, and it filed a motion for partial summary judgment.
The Bystander Rule
The trial court denied that motion as to Kenneth’s emotional distress damages for Eric but granted it as to his emotional distress damages for Kathy. Both parties appealed. The appellate court evaluated Kenneth’s claims under Indiana’s bystander rule, which required Kenneth to show three separate things:
- He was on the scene during or immediately following the incident.
- He had not been informed of the incident before arriving at the scene.
- When he arrived at the scene, the victims were in the same condition as they were immediately following the incident.
On the first element of this rule, Ceres claimed that Kenneth arrived three hours after the explosion and was therefore not on the scene during or immediately following the incident. However, the appellate court concluded that the explosion and ensuing fire constituted one ongoing event. Kenneth’s arrival while the fire was in progress satisfied this part of the bystander rule.
As to the second element, the court noted that Indiana law bars claims of bystanders who willingly expose themselves to the scene of an incident. However, it concluded that Kenneth was not informed of the incident before arriving at the scene. While at the roadblock, he was aware that the fire was coming from his house, but firefighters could provide no details before allowing him to proceed to the scene.
The final element of the Indiana bystander rule required that the victim be in essentially the same condition as immediately following the incident. The court noted that Kenneth saw Eric at the scene while the house was still burning, and that he saw Eric’s facial burn injuries. It concluded that Kenneth’s emotional distress claim as to Eric’s injuries therefore satisfied the third element of the Indiana bystander rule and could be considered by a jury together with Kenneth’s other claims against Ceres. It therefore determined that the trial court was wrong in granting the Ceres motion on this point.
‘Cruel & Less Than Adequate’
The court then considered whether Kathy was in essentially the same condition when Kenneth was at the scene as it was immediately following the incident. The court first concluded that Kenneth did not have to see Kathy’s body at the scene to assert an emotional distress claim:
“Our law would be cruel and less than adequate if it did not recognize the severe degree of emotional harm certain to be suffered by those who must watch helplessly while fire is causing injury to a loved one.
“Even though Bradley was prevented from seeing his wife’s charred remains, the fact that he had to be removed to prevent this trauma would have triggered the type of horrible mental images one forms upon understanding the reality of a loved one’s gruesome death.”
The court therefore concluded that Kenneth’s emotional distress claim as to Kathy’s death also satisfied the third element of the Indiana bystander rule and could be considered by a jury together with Kenneth’s other claims against Ceres. It therefore determined that the trial court was correct in denying the Ceres motion on this point.
In accordance with the court’s ruling, Kenneth Bradley will be able to present his emotional distress claims for the death of his wife and the injuries to his son to a jury at trial.
A note of caution: The recovery of bystander damages is an area where the law can differ widely from state to state. The result in the Bradley case could have been different in another jurisdiction.