As a general rule of Louisiana law, a plaintiff cannot recover general damages for mental disturbance or distress unless the defendant’s act also causes physical injury, illness, or some other physical consequence. However, in Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently reexamined the circumstances under which a limited exception to this general rule may apply.
The Spencer case involved an explosion and fire that occurred shortly after midnight at the Valero refinery in Meraux, Louisiana. The plaintiffs claimed Valero should be liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged they heard loud sounds, experienced anxiety, and had difficulty sleeping after the event. None of the plaintiffs received any medical treatment or experienced physical injury/symptoms. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs could not recover damages under these circumstances.
The court held that recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress is not precluded under Louisiana law. However, the court also cautioned that not every act that causes some harm also yields liability and compensatory damages. It held that Louisiana courts must also consider the goal set forth under Louisiana law to prevent “spurious” or false claims when examining these types of actions.
In review of the plaintiffs’ claims, the court cited Moresi v. State Through Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, to show that the plaintiffs were required to establish “the especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from the special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.” The Spencer court held evidence of generalized fear or evidence of mere inconvenience is not enough to show that a plaintiff’s distress is “serious.” The court added that this rule must be “stringently applied,” because these types of cases, though fact intensive, are inherently speculative in nature.
In review of the facts presented in Spencer, the court found that Valero owed a duty to the plaintiffs and breached the “duty it owed, which was a cause-in-fact of plaintiffs’ generalized fear and anxiety.” However, the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence to show that their complaints, which included anxiety and difficulty sleeping, were sufficiently “serious” to support an award for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and their claims were dismissed. Although the result in Spencer may be limited to its facts, the Court’s decision appears to align with the general rule that a plaintiff usually cannot recover general damages for emotional distress in Louisiana absent an accompanying injury.
Spencer v. Valero Refining Meraux, LLC, 2022-00469 (La. 1/27/23), 356 So. 3d 936.
Moresi v. State Through Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, 567 So.2d 1801 (La 1990).