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Washington v. John T. Rhines Co.

August 29, 1994


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Rufus G. King, III, Trial Judge)

Before Terry, Schwelb, and King, Associate Judges. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Terry. Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge Schwelb.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry

TERRY, Associate Judge: This case raises an issue of first impression in the District of Columbia, namely, whether this jurisdiction recognizes -- or should recognize -- the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress arising from the alleged mishandling of a dead body. Answering this question in the negative, the trial court dismissed the complaint of appellant Marian Washington under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Before this court appellant argues that our decision in Williams v. Baker, 572 A.2d 1062 (D.C. 1990) (en banc), in no way forecloses her present claim, and that this jurisdiction has long recognized a cause of action in the surviving spouse for the negligent mistreatment of a corpse. She relies principally on Steagall v. Doctors Hospital, 84 U.S. App. D.C. 214, 171 F.2d 352 (1948). We hold, however, that Steagall does not support her claim and that Williams bars it. We therefore affirm the trial court's dismissal of appellant's complaint.


On June 21, 1990, Mrs. Washington's husband, Vernon W. Washington, died in the District of Columbia. *fn1 Later that day Mrs. Washington contracted with appellee John T. Rhines Company ("Rhines"), a funeral home in the District of Columbia, to prepare, embalm, and dress Mr. Washington's body. Pursuant to the agreement, Rhines also transported the casket containing the body to National Airport. From there it was shipped to a funeral home in El Paso, Texas, for an open-casket memorial service and eventual burial in El Paso National Cemetery.

According to Mrs. Washington's complaint, when the casket arrived in El Paso on June 25, it was discovered that

the clothing and the inside of the shipping case were drenched with fluid; there was an offensive odor of embalming and body fluids; there were extreme skin slips, blisters, and discolorations on several parts of the body; the body had begun to turn green and was rapidly decomposing; there was swelling in the face and neck areas; and a catheter tube which had been inserted in the deceased's body during his hospitalization had not been removed.

A representative of the El Paso funeral home informed Mrs. Washington of the condition of her husband's body. The mortician also asked Mrs. Washington to examine the body herself so that she could authorize the funeral home to re-embalm it and make it presentable for open-casket viewing. With Mrs. Washington's permission, the funeral home proceeded to disinfect, re-embalm, and re-dress Mr. Washington's body, and the open-casket service took place as scheduled. Despite these efforts, however, the body still possessed "a somewhat bloated and distorted appearance at the service."

Some time later Mrs. Washington filed a complaint against Rhines in the Superior Court alleging that, as a result of Rhines' negligence during the first embalming, she had been "prevented from taking possession and proceeding to bury the body of her husband in an orderly manner." She also claimed that Rhines' negligence had caused her to view her husband's body in a deteriorating state when she was asked to authorize the re-embalming in El Paso. As a result, Mrs. Washington alleged, she "suffered severe nervous shock and great mental and emotional pain, anguish, and stress for a long period of time," injuries for which she sought compensatory damages.

Rhines moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12 (b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. In support of its motion, Rhines argued that there was no basis under District of Columbia law to award Mrs. Washington damages for emotional distress, in that she did not meet the narrow standard established in Williams v. Baker, supra. Mrs. Washington argued in response that her claim "stems specifically from the alleged mishandling of her husband's dead body," and that the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions have recognized such claims as exceptions to the general rule governing negligently caused emotional distress. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed her complaint, and Mrs. Washington noted this appeal.


Mrs. Washington urges this court to recognize a cause of action for negligently inflicted emotional distress resulting from the mishandling of a corpse. She observes that the District of Columbia already recognizes a legal right in the surviving spouse of a dead person to possess, preserve, and bury the decedent's body. Relying on Steagall v. Doctors Hospital, supra, she asks us to take the next step and permit the surviving spouse to recover damages for emotional distress whenever the right recognized in Steagall is negligently violated.

Courts in the District of Columbia historically have cast a wary eye on emotional distress claims. Indeed, until 1990, the solidly established case law was that a person could recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress only if that person also sustained a physical injury at the same time. Asuncion v. Columbia Hospital for Women, 514 A.2d 1187, 1188-1189 (D.C. 1986); District of Columbia v. Smith, 436 A.2d 1294, 1296 (D.C. 1981); Gilper v. Kiamesha Concord, Inc., 302 A.2d 740, 745 (D.C. 1973); Perry v. Capital Traction Co., 59 App. D.C. 42, 44, 32 F.2d 938, 940, cert. denied, 280 U.S. 577, 74 L. Ed. 627, 50 S. Ct. 31 (1929). Moreover, under the old standard, plaintiffs were also required to demonstrate that the emotional distress flowed directly from the physical injury. Asuncion, supra, 514 A.2d at 1189 n.1. The rationale underlying this stringent rule was stated in Clark v. Associated Retail Credit Men, 70 App. D.C. 183, 185, 105 F.2d 62, 64 (1939):

The law does not, and doubtless should not, impose a general duty of care to avoid causing mental distress. For the sake of reasonable freedom of action, in our own interest and that of society, we need the privilege of being ...

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