Personal Injury Lawyer
The law protects people from being harmed due to the intentional or negligent conduct of others. This protection extends to emotional or psychological harm inflicted by others, called emotional distress. Historically, a plaintiff could only recover damages for emotional distress if it accompanied a physical injury. Today, most courts recognize emotional distress as its own injury and allow it as a cause of action even where the plaintiff suffered no physical harm.
Some behavior can be so psychologically damaging that it is severe enough to constitute its own injury, even without the threat of physical harm. However, to bring a cause of action for emotional distress, the psychological injury must be severe. For example, someone who pulls a prank by telling another person that their family member has died in an accident has not caused that person a physical injury, but the law will hold them liable for the severe psychological impact of the prank. Most states recognize two types of emotional distress torts: intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Intentional infliction of emotional distress has four elements:
- The defendant acted intentionally or recklessly;
- The defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous;
- The plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress; and
- The defendant’s conduct was the cause of the plaintiff’s emotional distress.
The most difficult inquiry in intentional infliction of emotional distress cases is whether the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous. The standard for intentional infliction of emotional distress is very high, partly because this inquiry is inherently subjective. The degree to which a defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous is decided on a case-by-case basis, but the most widely used standard is whether the conduct goes beyond all bounds of human decency so as to be regarded as utterly intolerable in a civilized society.
The plaintiff must also show that they suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the defendant’s conduct. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s conduct has had a significant and lasting psychological impact on them. A plaintiff might make this showing by presenting evidence that they underwent psychological counseling because of the defendant’s conduct. Most courts do not require the plaintiff to prove that their emotional harm led to physical symptoms.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
Negligent infliction of emotional distress differs from intentional infliction of emotional distress because instead of alleging that the plaintiff intentionally or recklessly caused them psychological harm, the plaintiff claims that the defendant was so careless that their actions caused them severe emotional injury. There are typically two requirements to bring a successful claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The first requirement has three variations:
- The defendant’s negligent conduct caused physical impact with the plaintiff; or
- The plaintiff was in the “zone of danger” of the defendant’s negligent conduct; or
- It was foreseeable that the defendant’s negligent conduct would cause the plaintiff emotional distress.
In states that require the defendant’s negligent conduct to cause physical impact to the plaintiff, the impact can be as small as a pebble hitting them, as long as physical contact is made. The “zone of danger” rule requires that the plaintiff was close enough to the defendant’s negligent act that they were at immediate risk of physical harm. In states that follow a foreseeability standard, the defendant must have been able to reasonably predict that their actions could harm the plaintiff, but there is no requirement that the defendant’s negligent conduct involve some risk of physical harm.
The second requirement is that the plaintiff’s emotional harm is so severe that it causes physical symptoms of some kind. Such physical symptoms can include a loss of appetite or the inability to sleep. The physical manifestation of the plaintiff’s emotional harm does not have to be severe, but it must be observable and objective.