Impact Rule Law & Legal Definition


The impact rule is a common law requirement that physical contact must occur to allow damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress. It has been abandoned in many jurisdictions. It is also referred to as Physical Impact Rule.

Florida’s Impact Rule.

Florida's impact rule is a judicially-created rule which can be traced to the 1893 decision in International Ocean Telegraph Co. v. Saunders, 14 So. 148 (1893). According to this rule "before a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another, the emotional distress suffered must flow from physical injuries the plaintiff sustained in an impact." [R.J. v. Humana of Fla., Inc., 652 So. 2d 360, 362 (Fla. 1995)]. Florida's version of the impact rule has more aptly been described as having a "hybrid" nature, requiring either impact upon one's person or, in certain situations, at a minimum the manifestation of emotional distress in the form of a discernible physical injury or illness. [Gracey v. Eaker, 837 So. 2d 348, 356 (Fla. 2002)]

The Florida courts have reasoned that required flowing of emotional distress from physical injuries is necessary because, unlike physical injury, emotional harm “is difficult to prove, resultant damages are not easily quantified, and the precise cause of such injury can be elusive.” The Florida Supreme Court has also theorized that without the impact rule, Florida courts may be flooded with litigation based solely on psychological injury.

In Florida, the prerequisites for recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress differ depending on whether the plaintiff has or has not suffered a physical impact from an external force. If the plaintiff has suffered an impact, Florida courts permit recovery for emotional distress stemming from the incident during which the impact occurred, and not merely the impact itself. If, however, the plaintiff has not suffered an impact, the complained-of mental distress must be "manifested by physical injury," the plaintiff must be "involved" in the incident by seeing, hearing, or arriving on the scene as the traumatizing event occurs, and the plaintiff must suffer the complained-of mental distress and accompanying physical impairment "within a short time" of the incident.[ Willis v. Gami Golden Glades, LLC, 967 So. 2d 846, 850 (Fla. 2007)]

Although the Courts have upheld the viability of the impact rule, it has recognized exceptions where a plaintiff may recover for emotional damages even though s/he suffered no impact or physical manifestation of the injuries. These exceptions, however, "have been narrowly created and defined in a certain very narrow class of cases in which the foreseeability and gravity of the emotional injury involved, and lack of countervailing policy concerns, have surmounted the policy rationale undergirding the application of the impact rule." For example, the impact rule does not apply to any intentional torts, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The rule also appears not to apply to "freestanding torts" which exist regardless of what emotional damages may accompany these torts, such as wrongful birth.[ Fla. Dep't of Corr. v. Abril, 969 So. 2d 201, 206-207 (Fla. 2007)] The impact rule generally is inapplicable to recognized torts in which damages often are predominately emotional. [Kush v. Lloyd, 616 So. 2d 415, 422 (Fla. 1992)]