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Texas Supreme Court Refuses To Recognize Parents' Loss Of Consortium Claim From Seriously Injured Child

 
 

HLD, v. 31, n. 9 (September 2003)

Texas Supreme Court Refuses To Recognize Parents' Loss Of Consortium Claim From Seriously Injured Child

The day after her birth, Courtnie Williamson began suffering from severe acidosis, a condition that can cause heart and brain damage. Williamson's treating physician contacted Dr. Karen Roberts, a pediatrician. Several hours later, after consulting with a neonatologist at another hospital, Roberts gave Courtnie sodium bicarbonate to counteract the acidosis. Although her condition began to improve, Courtnie sustained massive brain damage resulting in permanent neurological and behavioral problems that could worsen over time. Courtnie's parents, individually and on behalf of their daughter, sued Roberts, the hospital, and several other physicians in state trial court, alleging a malfunctioning ventilator, the delay in administering sodium bicarbonate, and the failure to immediately transfer Courtnie to a better-equipped hospital proximately caused her injuries.

The Williamsons settled their claims against the hospital and two of the named treating physicians for $468,750. The claims against Roberts proceeded to trial, which apportioned responsibility for Courtnie's injuries 85% to the settling parties and 15% to Roberts. The jury awarded over $3 million in damages, including $75,000 to the Williamsons for past loss of filial consortium. The appeals court affirmed the award of damages. Roberts appealed.

On an issue of first impression, the Texas Supreme Court held that the state does not recognize a common law cause of action for a parent's loss of consortium resulting from a non-fatal injury to a child. In so ruling, the high court rejected the appeals court's interpretation that, because a child is entitled to seek damages for loss of consortium in connection with a parent's non-fatal injury, see Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463 (Tex. 1990), the reciprocal holds true for a parent, as it does between husband and wife. "We recognize the sympathetic and, on the surface, logical appeal to extending consortium rights to parents as well as children. But several states that have recognized a child's right to loss of consortium have denied the parents any reciprocal right," the majority's opinion said. Agreeing with those jurisdictions, the high court explained that in the parent-child relationship the child is the party needing special protection, not the parent.

The high court conceded that "serious injury to a child will have emotional consequences for the parent," but noted that tort law "cannot remedy every wrong" and "[s]trong public policy requires an end at some point to the consequential damages that flow from a single negligent act." According to the high court, the speculative nature of measuring intangible losses to secondary victims weighed against recognizing a parent's loss of consortium claim, particularly given the uncertainty that the additional layer of liability would produce corresponding benefits of deterrence or fair compensation. In Reagan, sorting through such difficulties was justified "because of the perceived social importance in protecting the child's interest," the high court said. But extending consortium rights in the instant case, the high court reasoned, "could logically lead to the recognition of such rights in other non-dependent relatives or even in close friends, given appropriate facts." According to the high court, "no compelling social policy impels us to recognize a parent's right to damages for the loss of filial consortium." Thus, the high court reversed the judgment insofar as it awarded damages for loss of filial consortium but otherwise affirmed the award in all other respects.

A dissenting opinion argued the majority's opinion was contrary to long-standing precedent, counter to the position of most other jurisdictions to consider the issue, and unduly tolerant of the anomaly it creates in the law. "By failing to recognize parents' right to recover damages for injuries tortiously inflicted upon their children, the Court creates an incongruence between its state policy of protecting the parent-child relationship and the law," the dissent wrote.

Roberts v. Williamson, Nos. 01-0765, 01-0766 (Tex. July 3, 2003).

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