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I live in Iowa and I witnessed my child get bitten by a dog. Can I recover damages?

Maybe. In 1981, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized that a bystander to a personal injury accident could recover for his or her emotional damages in some situations.

Specifically, in the case of Barnhill v. Davis, 200 N.W.2d 104 (Iowa 1981), the court found that a person who was not physically injured in an accident might be able to recover damages in a bystander emotional distress claim if:

  • The bystander was near the scene. If you saw your child get attacked, then this element of your claim is likely satisfied.
  • The bystander’s emotional distress was caused from observing the incident and not because the bystander learned of the incident after it happened. In other words, the court distinguished the emotional distress of seeing an accident happen from learning about the accident, and you would need to prove that your emotional distress was caused by actually witnessing the dog bite your child.
  • The bystander and the victim were married or related within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity. This would include a parent–child relationship.
  • The bystander believed, and a reasonable person in the position of the bystander would have believed, that the victim would be seriously injured or killed. You would need to prove that during the attack you believed that your child would be seriously injured or killed, and not merely hurt.

The bystander’s emotional distress must be serious. It is not enough that you are stressed about your child’s recovery or nervous around dogs. Instead, your emotional distress must be significant enough to give rise to a legal claim.

A bystander emotional distress claim is not always easy to prove. However, if you suffer physical symptoms from the horror of watching your child get hurt by a dog, then you could have a legal claim that is worth considering.

Jason F. Abraham
Managing Partner, Hupy and Abraham