The general rule in Maryland is that a person cannot recover emotional distress damages caused by witnessing or learning about harm to their property. For example, a person arrives home to discover that their classic 1967 Ford Mustang had been destroyed by a semi-truck driver who negligently backed into the vehicle. The owner had just spent hundreds of hours in painstakingly restoring the beloved vehicle. The sight of the destroyed vehicle causes the owner to have a nervous breakdown. Under Maryland law, the vehicle owner is entitled to recover damages for the fair market value of the vehicle or the cost of restoring the vehicle to its original state. However, the owner is not entitled to recover his emotional distress damages caused by the destruction of his beloved vehicle. Dobbins v. Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, 338 Md. 341, 345 (1995).
There are two exceptions to this rule in Maryland. If someone intentionally damages a person’s property, the property owner can recover emotional distress damages. For example, if a jealous neighbor vandalizes the classic 1967 Ford Mustang, the owner can recover emotional distress damages for suffering a nervous breakdown as well as the cost of repairing the vehicle. See Zeigler v. F Street Corp., 248 Md. 233, 226 (1967).
The other exception is when the property damage places a person in reasonable fear of their safety. For example, a driver loses control of his vehicle, veers off the street, and crashes into someone’s home at 2:00 a.m. The sound of the crash wakes up the homeowners. They fear that there was an explosion in their home and their lives and/or their children’s lives have been placed in danger. Even though the homeowners did not suffer any physical damage from the vehicle crashing into their home, the homeowners are entitled to recover emotional distress damages, because they intensely feared for their own and/or their children’s safety.
Note that there is no requirement that the homeowners and/or their children to have witnessed the car crashing into the home or that they had been sleeping in a room that had been damaged by the car. Their emotional distress recovery is based upon the fact that they were at the scene of the accident, their home had been damaged, and they experienced reasonable fear for their safety as a result of the tremendous noise and shaking of the home caused by the accident. See Bowman v. Williams, 165 Md. 397 (1933); Belcher v. T. Rowe Price, 329 Md. 709 (1993); and Bogert v. Thompson, __ Md.App. ____ (July 28, 2022).
In contrast, if a pedestrian witnesses a horrific vehicle crash and explosion from 50 yards away, the pedestrian is not entitled to recover emotional distress damages. Why? Because the pedestrian did not suffer a physical injury from the car crash and none of the pedestrian’s property was damaged by the car crash.