Emotional Distress Damages Not Distinct from “Annoyance and Discomfort” Damages in Case Arising from 2007 California Wildfires

In Hensley v. San Diego Gas & Elec. Co., (No. D070259, filed 1/31/17), the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District held that emotional distress damages are available on claims for trespass and nuisance as part of “annoyance and discomfort” damages.

In Hensley, plaintiffs sustained fire damage to their home and property during the 2007 California wildfires. The Hensleys were forced to evacuate as the fires advanced. Although their home was not completely destroyed, it sustained significant damage and they were not able to return home permanently for nearly two months. Thereafter, the Hensleys filed suit against San Diego Gas and Electric Company (“SDG&E”) asserting causes of action for trespass and nuisance, among others. Mr. Hensley, who had suffered from Crohn’s disease since 1991, further claimed that as a result of the stress from the fire, he experienced a substantial increase in his symptoms and his treating physician opined that “beyond a measure of reasonable medical certainty… the stress created by the 2007 San Diego fires caused an increase of [Mr. Hensley’s] disease activity, necessitating frequent visits, numerous therapies, and at least two surgeries since the incident.” SDGE moved, in limine, to exclude evidence of Mr. Hensley’s asserted emotional distress damages arguing he was not legally entitled to recover them under theories of trespass and nuisance. The trial court agreed and excluded all evidence of such damages.

On appeal, the Hensley court reversed. It held damages for emotional distress are recoverable as a component of annoyance and discomfort damages allowed in trespass and nuisance cases. The Court reasoned that California courts have long held that once a cause of action for trespass or nuisance is established, a landowner may recover for annoyance and discomfort, including emotional distress or mental anguish, proximately caused by the trespass or nuisance and that this is so even where the trespass or nuisance involves solely property damage.

In reaching its decision, the Hensley court rejected SDG&E’s reliance on Kelly v. CBI Constructors, Inc., (2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 442 in support of its contention that the owner or occupant must be personally or physically present on the invaded property during the trespass or nuisance in order for emotional distress damages to “naturally ensue” from a trespass or nuisance. Instead, the Hensley court found that the Kelly decision stood “only for the proposition that legal occupancy is required to recover damages for annoyance and discomfort in a trespass case and that standard requires immediate and personal possession as a resident or commercial tenant would have.” It went on to explain that Kelly “does not hold that an occupant must be personally or physically present at the time of the harmful invasion to deem emotional distress damages “naturally ensuing” therefrom. With respect to the Hensleys, there was no dispute they both owned and resided on their property and the Court reasoned it could not “be denied that annoyance and discomfort would naturally ensue when a fire damages a family home and destroys unique and valued property features” even if the plaintiffs were not physically present during the fire.

The Hensley court further found that the general rule that emotional distress resulting from property damage alone is not compensable under negligence and breach of contract theories was not applicable to theories of trespass and nuisance. Accordingly, the Court found that the fear, stress and anxiety Mr. Hensley suffered as a direct and proximate result of the fire and its attendant damage, loss of use, and enjoyment, were compensable as damages for annoyance and discomfort.

The Hensley case is a reminder to pay careful attention to what damages are being sought pursuant to each theory of liability as the rules governing their recovery may differ significantly depending on the theory plead.

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February 3, 2017