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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress can have a severe impact on the victim’s mental health. This type of abuse involves behavior that is so bad it causes emotional trauma. Victims of emotional distress can sue the person who inflicted it for damages.

Not every situation in which someone experiences offense counts as a case of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Living in society inevitably involves putting up with a certain amount of behavior that is offensive, rude, or otherwise distressing. However, when the behavior crosses a threshold and becomes so extreme that it causes lasting emotional trauma, the victim can be eligible for compensation.

Defining Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

The exact definition of intentional infliction of emotional distress varies from state to state. However, all the definitions contain the following elements:

  • The conduct is extreme and/or outrageous
  • The perpetrator intentionally or recklessly causes distress
  • The resulting emotional distress is severe (and may include bodily harm)

In situations that fulfill all these criteria, the victim can claim damages for the emotional distress they have suffered. They can also claim damages for physical effects of the stress, such as miscarriage.

The extreme behavior that caused the emotional distress does not have to have been directed at the person who claims damages. For example, if conduct directed at a family member in a claimant’s presence causes the claimant severe emotional distress, there could be a case for claiming damages. State regulations regarding claims in these situations vary widely, but there are some common elements:

  • The conduct is extreme and/or outrageous
  • The perpetrator intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress
  • The conduct is directed at a member of the claimant’s immediate family (whether or not there is physical harm)
  • The conduct is directed at any person in the claimant’s presence (if there is physical harm)

What is Extreme or Outrageous Conduct?

To qualify as extreme and outrageous, conduct must be more than merely offensive. It must go beyond all the usual constraints of decency. Ordinary insults do not usually qualify unless there is some relationship between the perpetrator and victim that means they are likely to cause severe emotional distress. For example, if the perpetrator knew that the victim was highly sensitive about a medical condition they suffer from, repeatedly insulting them on that basis might constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Someone exercising one of their legal rights can never count as intentional infliction of emotional distress. For example, a landlord issuing eviction proceedings against a tenant who hasn’t paid rent does not count as intentional infliction of emotional distress, even if the tenant experiences emotional trauma because it is the landlord’s right to reclaim their property.

Ultimately, it is up to a jury to decide whether behavior counts as outrageous or extreme.

What is Intentional or Reckless Conduct?

Valid claims are those where an action was carried out recklessly or with the intention of causing emotional distress. The perpetrator must know their actions are likely to cause emotional harm.

What is Severe Emotional Distress?

There is no precise definition of severe emotional distress. Plaintiffs must convince a jury that they have experienced suffering that no reasonable person should have to endure. It often helps to present evidence showing how long the emotional distress has gone on. Distress that lasts a long time is more likely to be considered severe.

Plaintiffs can also present evidence of physical harms they have experienced as a result of their emotional distress. For example, headaches and ulcers are both physical manifestations of severe emotional distress.

An evaluation from a trained psychiatrist can help to determine whether your client has been a victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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Helene A. Miller / And Other Providers
Family Psychiatry and Therapy brings compassion, understanding, and skilled care to patients throughout New Jersey. Our team of mental health professionals focuses on providing a positive and uplifting experience that aids our patients in facing life’s toughest challenges.