Is a Broken Heart Actionable? Should it Be?

By Harry S. Margolis

A recent issue of the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reports the settlement of case brought by the heirs of a 69-year-old woman who died the day after she learned that trees she and her husband had planted together 40 years earlier along their property line had been cut down.

The parties disputed whether the trees were in fact on the couple’s land or on that of their neighbor and the neighbor claimed to have hired someone to clean up the back yard, not to cut down any trees.

There was testimony that the woman was quite upset on learning that the trees had been felled as well as a medical opinion that she probably died of a heart attack or stroke and that the stress of the trauma she suffered could have contributed to her death.

The case settled for $150,000.  This probably reflects a combination of the huge potential damages for wrongful death and the difficulty the family would have in establishing an actionable claim. 

Typically, only intentional infliction of emotional distress may be compensated.  Nothing in the published case summary suggests that the neighbor cut down the trees as the result of a disagreement or with any malice.  At most, this appears to have involved gross negligence, perhaps more on the part of the landscaper than the neighbor.

This case was resolved through mediation, which seems appropriate and a better way than a trial to resolve a dispute among neighbors.  A trial can be a very blunt instrument, a process that can aggravate the original injury. 

While it may not make sense to extend the law to provide for damages due to negligent infliction of emotional distress, for a neighbor to offer compensation where his carelessness may have created great harm, seems totally appropriate.  I wonder, however, whether his homeowner’s insurance covered the claim.

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