People suffer emotional distress for many reasons. There are times when another person's behavior may cause distress for one person where another
person would not suffer at all. In American tort law, when a person intentionally causes another person extreme or severe emotional distress, such behavior is actionable in a civil lawsuit.
The Elements of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
To establish the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must prove each and every element of the cause of action. A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress
requires a plaintiff to prove that:
The defendant intended to inflict emotional distress or knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his or her conduct;
The conduct was extreme and outrageous and utterly intolerable in a civilized community;
The defendant's conduct was the cause of the plaintiff's distress; and
The plaintiff's emotional distress was so severe in nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.
Examining the Elements
It is not easy to win a lawsuit claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to William P. Statsky, author of Torts Personal Injury Litigation, the defendant's conduct must be so
extreme or outrageous that it would be regarded as objectively atrocious and totally intolerable. The defendant's act must be so outrageous that it would "shock the conscience" of society.
Thus, to succeed on a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, not only must the plaintiff prove that the defendant intended to do the act, but the plaintiff must also prove that the
defendant intended that the act cause severe emotional anguish. Moreover, the plaintiff would have to prove that the conduct was so extreme and outrageous that it could not be tolerated in a
civilized society. Finally, the plaintiff would have to prove that his or her emotional distress over the defendant's conduct was so severe that no reasonable person could tolerate it.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Compared
Author Cathy J. Okrent in Torts and Personal Injury Law defines the general elements of negligent infliction of emotional distress as "outrageous conduct by the tortfeasor that the tortfeasor
reasonably should have anticipated would produce significant and reasonably foreseeable emotional injury to the victim." One key difference between intentional infliction and negligent infliction of
emotional distress is, of course, the intent element.
There is no requirement that the plaintiff in a negligent infliction of emotional distress case prove that the defendant intended to cause harm. Nevertheless, a majority of American states adhere to
the so-called "physical manifestations rule" which requires the plaintiff to establish some sort of physical manifestation of his or her emotional distress, such as hives, insomnia, or weight
Compensatory and Punitive Damages for Infliction of Emotional Distress
Someone who has been the victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress may recover compensatory and punitive damages in a civil lawsuit, depending on the circumstances. Compensatory damages
may include payment for such things as humiliation, mental suffering, medical bills and other out-of-pocket expenses resulting from the plaintiff's emotional distress.
Punitive damages may also be available for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but are not generally awarded for negligence. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for his or
her outrageous behavior and to deter similar behavior on the part of others. An award of any type of damages is made on a case-by-case basis, and any recovery for intentional or negligent infliction
of emotional distress will depend on the specific facts of each case.
Statsky, William P. Torts Personal Injury Litigation (4th ed). N.Y.: Delmar Learning, 2001.
Okrent, Cathy J. Torts and Personal Injury Law (4th ed.). N.Y.: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2010.
Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998).
Disclaimer: This article is in no way intended as legal advice. For help with specific legal issues, one should contact a licensed attorney in one's local area.