What is Emotional Distress and Can Someone Be Sued for Causing It?

Get your free, no-cost case evaluation below

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

* all fields required

You may be familiar with the notion that a personal injury claim can compensate for both economic and non-economic damages. The former involves the material losses associated with your experience – such as medical bills, lost wages, and any loss in income. The latter seeks to address intangible losses such as pain, suffering, and emotional distress. What does the term “emotional distress” mean? When can you pursue damages for it? Learn what emotional distress is and how it might affect your personal injury claim.

What Is Emotional Distress?

A person may inflict emotional distress when his or her conduct is so egregious that it causes the victim to experience severe emotional trauma. On the other hand, not all matters of offensive conduct create intentional infliction of emotional distress. We go through our lives under the assumption that we have to deal with a certain degree of rudeness or offensive conduct. When this offensive conduct escalates to a level that’s truly reprehensible, a victim might be able to collect damages caused by emotional distress.

Elements Required for Emotional Distress

Generally, collecting damages for emotional distress requires:

  • The presence of outrageous or extreme conduct
  • That conduct intentionally or recklessly caused extreme duress or possible bodily injury

If these preceding elements apply, the person who acts in the extreme or reckless way may be civilly liable for any harm that results – whether that’s emotional or physical (a miscarriage might be an example of bodily harm that arises from the stress of emotional duress).

What Constitutes Extreme or Outrageous Conduct?

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest sticking points in determining if emotional distress occurred is defining “extreme and outrageous conduct.” Without the presence of extreme or outrageous conduct, the claimant will find it difficult to prove the presence of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Extreme and outrageous is more serious than malicious, harmful, or offensive conduct. In the eyes of the law, the conduct rises to the level of extreme or outrageous when it goes beyond any level of human decency. For example, “normal” amounts of rudeness or insulting generally don’t qualify as extreme or outrageous – though they might in an instance of domestic abuse. Additionally, ordinary or normal offensiveness might lead to outrageous conduct if a person has a physical or mental condition. For example, waving a tarantula in someone’s face if he or she has arachnophobia may rise to the level of extreme or outrageous.

Ultimately, it’s up to a jury to decide if a person’s behavior steps outside the bounds of common human decency. It is a highly subjective term that requires interpretation of the facts and circumstances surrounding each individual case.

Acting With Intent or Recklessness

A person’s conduct must be more than just extreme; it must also be intentional or reckless. In other words, the person perpetrating the act must have the intention to cause emotional distress to the victim – and they must know that the emotional distress was likely to result. A person becomes liable for emotional distress when he or she knows with high probability that his or her actions will trigger a severe, negative emotional response in the victim.

We also call this “reckless disregard” for another person’s emotions. Like outrageous or extreme conduct, a jury will have a heavy hand in deciding whether intent or recklessness occurs.

If you believe someone else’s behavior meets all the criteria listed above, you may be able to pursue damages resulting from emotional distress. Due to the highly complex nature of these cases, it’s best to work with an attorney to establish these elements before attempting to pursue a claim against the perpetrator.