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Estate of Miles v. Burcham

Supreme Court of Mississippi

December 12, 2013

ESTATE OF Edward MILES, Deceased
v.
Virgil BURCHAM.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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R. Bradley Best, Oxford, Edward R. McNees, Booneville, attorneys for appellant.

Duncan L. Lott, Thomas O. Cooley, attorneys for appellee.

Before WALLER, C.J., LAMAR and PIERCE, JJ.

LAMAR, Justice.

¶ 1. Following a motor-vehicle accident, Virgil Burcham sued Edward Miles's estate for negligence and negligence per se. Burcham received a $60,000 judgment, from which the Miles estate appeals. We affirm the judgment as to liability, subject to remittitur.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. On November 3, 2005, Edward Miles drove his pickup truck into an intersection in front of Virgil Burcham's eighteen-wheel fuel truck.[1] Miles was transported by helicopter to the Regional

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Medical Center in Memphis, where he died several hours later.[2] At the accident scene, Burcham complained of minor back pain but drove himself home after his boss, Danny Jumper, gave him a ride to his personal vehicle.

¶ 3. The next day, Burcham informed Jumper that his back pain had increased and that he needed to see a doctor. During this conversation, Burcham first learned that Miles had died. Burcham was traumatized by the news and asked Jumper to find someone else to haul fuel. Jumper could not find a replacement, and Burcham resumed hauling fuel a week later. During the next six months, Burcham was nervous and often cried while driving. He also lost control of his bowels several times. Despite his emotional distress, Burcham continued to haul fuel but did not unload it due to his back injury.

¶ 4. Nineteen days after the accident, Burcham went to see Dr. Joseph Putnam with complainants of increased constipation, lack of bowel control, and blood in his stool. Dr. Putnam ordered a colonoscopy, which identified diverticulosis,[3] and not the accident, as the cause of Burcham's issues. For his emotional distress, Burcham went to see Dr. Joe Ed Morris and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Morris referred Burcham to Timber Hills, a regional mental facility, where Burcham was treated on an outpatient basis by Dr. Atsuko Ishikawa. Burcham's conditions improved, and he continued to haul fuel until he retired in 2006.

¶ 5. Burcham sued the Miles estate for negligence and negligence per se, and a jury awarded him $60,000.[4] The Miles estate appeals from the judgment, raising six issues:

I. Did the trial court err by failing to exclude Burcham's emotional-distress claims?
II. Did the trial court err by failing to exclude Burcham's colonoscopy-related medical expenses?
III. Did the trial court err by giving flawed and incomplete jury instructions?
IV. Did the trial court err by excluding Officer Mathis's testimony regarding Burcham's prior accident?
V. Is the jury's verdict unsustainable?
VI. Did the trial court err by setting a six percent post-judgment interest rate?

LAW AND ANALYSIS

I. Emotional Distress

¶ 6. The crux of this appeal is whether Burcham's emotional distress was a reasonably foreseeable injury and therefore a recoverable category of damages.[5] For purposes of foreseeability, emotional-distress plaintiffs are divided into two categories: participants and bystanders. Participants are directly involved in the causal event, and the foreseeability of their emotional-distress claims is analyzed like

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any other damages claim.[6] Bystanders merely observe the causal event, and the foreseeability of their emotional-distress claims is determined by analyzing the three Dillon factors, which are:

1) Whether plaintiff was located near the scene of the accident as contrasted with one who was a distance away from it.
2) Whether the shock resulted from a direct emotional impact upon plaintiff from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence.
3) Whether plaintiff and the victim were closely related, as contrasted with an absence of any relationship or the presence of only a distant relationship. [7]

¶ 7. The parties dispute Burcham's classification because his emotional distress was caused by two events: the accident and the subsequent knowledge of Miles's death. Burcham claims that his involvement in the accident makes him a participant, while the Miles estate claims that his trauma stemmed from Miles's death, not the accident, and therefore, this should be analyzed as a bystander claim. We agree with Burcham.

¶ 8. Emotional distress is a reasonably foreseeable injury to a car-accident participant, therefore Burcham was entitled to such damages so long as he proved they were in fact caused by Miles's negligence.[8] It was undisputed at trial that, at the intersection where the accident occurred, Miles had a stop sign and Burcham had a flashing yellow caution light. As such, Burcham had the right of way, and Miles breached his duty to yield when he pulled out in front of him. This breach caused the accident between the parties. The question then became whether the accident caused Burcham's emotional distress. The testimony of several witnesses supports the jury's finding that it did. Specifically, Jumper testified that when he arrived at the accident scene Burcham was rattled, rambling, pale, " shaking like a leaf," and " a basket case." Similarly, Dr. Morris testified that Burcham's post-traumatic stress disorder was caused by his involvement in the fatal accident. Since Miles ...


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