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Mother Can Sue for Distress, Court Says

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that a mother can sue for the emotional distress she suffered from the alleged sexual molestation of her minor son by a psychotherapist at a medical clinic.

The court said the woman, who was undergoing counseling along with her son, was owed a legal “duty of care” by the therapist. If she can show that duty was violated by a molestation, she herself was a victim and can collect damages for the negligent infliction of emotional distress, the justices held.

The ruling, while limited in scope, does for the first time allow a parent to sue for trauma suffered from a child’s injury that the parent did not directly witness.

The justices held in a landmark 1968 decision that parents who were not victims themselves could sue for the distress of seeing the death or serious injury of a child. Lower courts have been divided since then over whether a parent must be personally present when harm occurs.

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Attorneys in the case said it is possible that Monday’s ruling will open the way for such suits in similar situations.

“With this Supreme Court we can’t expect a broad expansion of victims’ rights, but in this case, a little is better than none,” said Russell S. Kussman of Los Angeles, attorney for the mother in the case. “Now she (the parent) is able to go forward in trial on the theory that she has been a victim of a wrongful act of the defendants, as was her son. . . . This is a just ruling.”

John G. Kerr of Pasadena, attorney for the psychotherapist named as a defendant, called the ruling “very narrow” and one based largely on the unique facts of the case. “My sense is that this court is taking a more conservative and limited, case-by-case approach to any extension of liability,” he said.

Kerr also emphasized that the therapist denies any wrongdoing and said he believes the allegations were “outrageously” exaggerated.

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The case arose in 1980 when a woman identified by the court only as Marlene F. and two other mothers brought their minor sons to the Affiliated Psychiatric Medical Clinic Inc. of Rosemead to obtain counseling.

Two years later, the boys’ mothers said they discovered that a therapist had sexually molested their sons. They said they confronted the clinic operators, who said that the therapist had done nothing “illegal” but that he would no longer be assigned to treat minor patients. The therapist said he would undergo psychotherapy.

Marlene F. and one of the other mothers brought suit against the clinic, its owner and operator and the therapist for negligent infliction of emotional distress, saying that they, as parents, had undergone serious mental and emotional suffering and that their family relationships had been disrupted.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed the case, and in 1987 a state Court of Appeal agreed, finding that the mothers were not entitled to sue either as “bystanders,” as allowed under the high court’s 1968 ruling, or as “direct victims,” as permitted under a 1980 decision by the justices.

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The mothers were neither present at the time of the alleged molestation nor were they the actual targets of the therapist’s reputed misconduct, the appellate court said. (Meanwhile, the other mother reached a settlement with the defendants and was dropped from the case, leaving Marlene F. as the sole plaintiff affected by Monday’s ruling, attorneys said.)

The Supreme Court, however, reinstated the suit, noting that the clinic and therapist were counseling both parent and child and thus owed a duty to both that would open the way for liability if it were violated.


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