Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) Claims

IIED claims can be made when someone intentionally causes another person emotional distress, and need not be part of a larger physical personal injury claim.

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The most frequently used definition for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is "one who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for that emotional distress and for any bodily harm that results from it." In other words, if a defendant intentionally does something truly awful to a plaintiff, the plaintiff can sue for IIED and recover damages simply for his or her emotional pain and suffering. If the severe emotional distress also makes the plaintiff ill or causes some other physical problem, the plaintiff can recover damages for that harm as well. Read on to learn more about IIED (one of a handful of intentional tort claims).

For cases where the emotional injury was caused by negligence (carelessness or "by accident", not "on purpose"), see Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims (NIED).

Extreme and Outrageous Conduct

Emotional distress damages are available when the harm results from another tort, such as assault. In those cases, the conduct does not necessarily need to be “extreme and outrageous.” However, if the plaintiff is suing for IIED unconnected to another tort, he or she must prove that the defendant engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct. Only conduct that goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community will make a defendant liable for IIED. Whether the defendant’s conduct meets this threshold is a question for the judge or jury. Here are some examples:

  • As a practical joke, A falsely tells B that her husband has been badly injured in an accident, and is in the hospital with both legs broken. B suffers severe emotional distress. A is subject to liability to B for her emotional distress. If it causes nervous shock and resulting illness, A is subject to liability to B for her illness.
  • A is invited to a swimming party at an exclusive resort. B gives her a bathing suit which he knows will dissolve in water. It does dissolve while she is swimming, leaving her naked in the presence of men and women whom she has just met. A suffers extreme embarrassment, shame, and humiliation. B is subject to liability to A for her emotional distress.
  • A makes a telephone call but is unable to get the call through. In the course of an altercation with the telephone operator, A calls her a [blank blank] woman, a [blank blank] liar, and says that if he were there he would break her [blank blanked] neck. B suffers severe emotional distress, broods over the incident, is unable to sleep, and is made ill. A's conduct, although insulting, is not so outrageous or extreme as to make A liable to B.

Abuse of Power

The extreme and outrageous conduct may take place in the course of a relationship in which the defendant holds authority or other power over the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s interests. If the authority -- such as police officers, school authorities, landlords, and collecting creditor -- abuse their positions in some extreme manner, they may be liable to the plaintiff for IIED. As with other IIED claims, insults and other rude, but not extreme, conduct will not create liability. Here are some examples:

  • A, the principal of a high school, summons B, a schoolgirl, to his office, and abruptly accuses her of immoral conduct with various men. A bullies B for an hour, and threatens her with prison and with public disgrace for herself and her parents unless she confesses. B suffers severe emotional distress, and resulting illness. A is subject to liability to B for both.
  • A, a creditor, seeking to collect a debt from B, sends B a series of letters in lurid envelopes bearing a picture of lightning about to strike, in which A repeatedly threatens suit without bringing it, reviles B as a deadbeat, a dishonest man, and a criminal, and threatens to garnish his wages, to bother his employer so much that B will be discharged, and to "tie B up tight as a drum" if he does not pay. B suffers severe emotional distress. A is subject to liability to B.
  • A, a creditor, seeking to collect a debt, calls on B and demands payment in a rude and insolent manner. When B says that he cannot pay, A calls B a deadbeat, and says that he will never trust B again. A's conduct, although insulting, is not so extreme or outrageous as to make A liable to B.

More on Intentional Injury Claims

To learn more about the civil laws (personal injury laws) that govern injuries from assault, battery, and other intentional acts, see the articles we have filed under Intentional Accidents and Injuries.

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