More Than Hurt Feelings: Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

If you’ve been harmed by emotional trauma, you may want to take legal action. Learn the different types of emotional distress claims and what to expect if you sue.

A personal injury claim is usually about bodily injuries. Lost limbs, bone fractures, or wrongful deaths fill courtrooms every day.

It’s easy to understand when someone is in physical pain or has a serious injury. In a trial, it’s also relatively easy to look at medical bills and calculate damages for physical injuries.

Mental health injuries are just as real, and sometimes worse. Extreme trauma, emotional suffering, or being in extreme danger because of someone else all cause emotional distress. In the law, distress is a mental injury resulting from intense fear, anxiety, or worry caused by the actions of another.

In certain cases, courts allow you to recover damages for emotional distress without a physical injury. This article will discuss how to bring those claims and what you can expect from this unique area of law.

Emotional Distress as a Component of Other Claims

Woman holding onto cane with wheelchair in foreground

Emotional distress claims are not the only way to get your evidence in front of a court. Injury victims can and do win money for mental anguish, pain, and suffering as a part of physical injury cases.

That money, known as pain and suffering reimbursement, represents non-economic damages that can be claimed in most bodily injury cases. Non-economic damages are financial reimbursement for your peace of mind rather than money that has come out of your pocket.

Claims based solely on emotional distress are different from typical pain and suffering reimbursement.

In most personal injury cases, there must be a physical injury to claim emotional damages. For example, if you lose an arm in a car accident, the loss of your arm is devastating even if your medical bills are low. The sadness and grief of that loss might be able to be compensated, separate and apart from your medical treatment and prognosis.

On the other hand, damages in an emotional distress case usually don’t need a separate physical injury in order for you to recover damages. Your injury comes instead from the shame, humiliation, anger, or fear that comes from being the victim of outrageous conduct.

A recent example of an emotional distress claim that went before the United States Supreme Court is Snyder v. Phelps, where a jury awarded Mr. Snyder millions of dollars in a case against picketers who protested the funeral of Snyder’s son, a marine killed in the line of duty.

The picketers used the funeral to spread messages like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re Going to Hell,” all of which profoundly affected the already-grieving Mr. Snyder by making his son’s funeral a crass and disrespectful event. (Snyder’s award was later reversed on appeal on other grounds, which were First Amendment issues unique to the case.)

These two examples show two different kinds of emotional harm in physical injury cases and distress cases. One is an emotional reaction to a physical injury, and the other is distress caused by outrageous and uncivilized behavior that most reasonable people find unacceptable.

Who Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

Though the types of claims vary from state to state, you can generally sue anybody who fulfills the elements of an emotional distress claim. There are some unique situations to consider.

Family Members

Your relationship with the person who injured you matters. If the person who inflicted distress was a family member who was responsible for your well-being, that fact can make the person’s actions more outrageous.

Consider a parent committing verbal child abuse — a complete stranger saying something nasty to your child does not have the same effect as if you said it.

So, can you sue for emotional distress where family is concerned? Yes, but before you drag family disputes into court, you should examine them in context. In terms of parent-child relations in particular, cases without clear-cut abuse are likely to get thrown out.

Professionals

Doctors, lawyers, and accountants are all retained to help their patients and clients get through difficult times in their lives. If a professional ignores or actively hurts their client, that action is also more likely to be seen as outrageous and therefore give rise to an emotional distress claim.

Strangers

Though it can be more difficult to win a claim against someone with no prior relationship, it’s certainly possible. But for the First Amendment (freedom of speech) issues in the Snyder v. Phelps case, Snyder would have won against the picketers who made a military funeral into a disrespectful, horrid event.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress is another type of claim that can be committed by strangers. If someone is just careless and causes an accident that harms you emotionally, it can hold up in court even though you’re strangers.

In summary, you can assert emotional distress claims against any person you could sue for any other type of injury.

Two Types of Emotional Distress Claims

While physical and emotional injuries are often both present, they’re distinct and should be treated differently by both you and your personal injury lawyer. Let’s examine the two most common types of emotional distress claims.

1. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

Woman covers her ear as man yells in her face

Lawsuits for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) allege that the defendant acted in a way that was extreme and outrageous. The defendant must have either intended to cause you emotional distress or not cared whether you suffered.

Even if these requirements seem straightforward, they rarely are. Usually, extreme and outrageous behavior is completely intolerable in civilized society. This loose definition varies from case to case. What is extreme or outrageous between family members may not be so between strangers.

For example, unprovoked physical violence between anyone is never okay. But hurting your child is never justified and so is more likely to be classified as extreme and outrageous.

Some documented examples of extreme and outrageous conduct include:

  1. In Maryland, a father violently murdered his five-year-old child’s mother in front of the child. He then kept the child with her mother’s dead body for nearly a week. Finally, he committed suicide in front of the child.
  2. In Washington, a husband had to watch his wife die a painful death because a doctor refused to treat her.
  3. In Nevada, a sales manager with an excellent employment record was injured on the job. She missed time from work on the advice of her doctor. Her employer was unhappy that she took so much time off for her injury. They punished her by demoting her and then explaining that if she did not like her new situation, she was free to quit.

The above examples show the various and intense situations that can give rise to a claim for IIED. It’s difficult to know what behavior will qualify in all situations across every state.

There are a few common points in most claims:

  • Mere unpleasant or rude behavior will not qualify. The actions must be so bad that reasonable people would agree that it’s unacceptable in civilized society.
  • A close relationship, like doctor-patient, parent-child, or employer-employee will make bad behavior seem worse to the jury and judge. These kinds of relationships come with legal and ethical duties to protect, and so the failure to do so may be considered outrageous in and of itself.
  • Life-and-death situations are more likely to be considered extreme and outrageous. Any action, though, that affects basic rights (i.e., the right to be alone or the right to one’s physical freedom) can be enough to give rise to an IIED lawsuit.

The biggest difference between IIED lawsuits and other claims is that you have no physical wounds. But these kinds of injuries still must have evidence.

Evidence of IIED can include the following:

  • Your testimony
  • The testimony of a spouse or another loved one
  • The testimony of anyone who can explain differences in your condition before and after the accident
  • Your treating doctor’s records or testimony
  • Testimony of a specially retained doctor, who is an expert on your condition and prognosis

2. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

Mother comforts child with gauze wrapped around his head

Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) happens when another person acts carelessly and in a way that is completely unacceptable for the situation.

The resulting situation may cause physical damage, but the effect on you — based on your physical location or emotional connection — is emotional and comparable in size to an IIED claim.

NIED claims often result when a mortuary mishandles a deceased loved one’s dead body. An NIED claim may also arise when someone causes an accident and you are a bystander. If the victim of the accident was closely related to you and you suffer distress from the experience, you may have a claim for NIED.

Here are some real-life examples of NIED:

  • In Boorman v. Nevada Memorial Cremation Society Inc., a mortuary lost a deceased British man’s internal organs and stuffed his body cavity with a rolled-up sheet. The Nevada Supreme Court held that an NIED claim existed even though the family did not actually see the misplacing of the organs.
  • A mother suffered severe emotional distress after many cars collided with her home, putting her children at risk of injury or death. In the case of Paugh v. Hanks, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the idea that the mother had to be in a “zone of danger” of physical injury to recover for her emotional distress.

The biggest difference between Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional distress is the intention of the defendant. An IIED defendant focuses on hurting the victim either physically or psychologically, or acts without regard for that harm. A negligent defendant in an NIED case may not even know that the victim exists. This person just made a very careless mistake with serious consequences.

If you bring a claim for NIED, you will have to prove your damages. While this can include mental anguish and suffering, courts will generally accept evidence of physical damage to show how serious your emotional damages are.

Saving Your Peace of Mind

Father puts his arm around son while sitting on a dock

It’s common to assume that if you can’t touch or objectively measure something, it isn’t real. This line of thinking formerly held back a lot of progress on mental health in the United States. We now know that psychological health is critical, and the wrongful or careless actions of others can cause serious emotional damage.

Emotional distress lawsuits are therefore a necessary part of our legal system, and for making personal injury victims whole.

Whether you have been hurt by a family member, a doctor, a mortician, or a stranger, you owe it to yourself to achieve peace. If you need legal advice, speak with a personal injury attorney in your state for a free consultation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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