Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) Claims

A claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress need not be accompanied by physical injury.

By , Attorney · University of Michigan Law School

When someone else's purposeful action causes you harm, you might have a viable personal injury case. These kinds of claims are based on the theory of intentional tort. Injuries resulting from physical acts like assault and battery can form the basis of an intentional tort claim, but emotionally-harmful actions can too. That's where a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) comes in.

One definition of intentional infliction of emotional distress might look something like this: "Liability for IIED can arise when one person's extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another." In other words, if a defendant intentionally does something truly awful to a plaintiff, the plaintiff can sue for IIED and recover compensation (damages) simply based on his or her emotional distress. 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.

(For cases where emotional injury was caused by carelessness or "by accident", a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress claims (NIED) might be appropriate.)

Extreme and Outrageous Conduct

First, it's important to note that so-called "emotional distress" damages are usually available when a claimant suffers physical injury as a result of an accident or intentional conduct. In those cases, accompanying emotional distress is usually called "pain and suffering." The defendant's conduct does not necessarily need to be "extreme and outrageous" in cases where the plaintiff suffered physical injury. (Learn more about how the nature and extent of injuries affects claim value.)

However, if the plaintiff is suing for IIED unconnected to another tort, he or she must usually prove that the defendant engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct. Often, only conduct that goes beyond all possible bounds of decency can 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 may be subject to liability to B for her emotional distress. If the incident causes nervous shock and resulting illness, A is almost certainly subject to liability to B for her medical bills and related losses.
  • 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 may be subject to liability to A for her emotional distress.

    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 over the plaintiff's interests. If the authority—such as a police officer, school official, landlord, or collecting creditor—abuses their position in some extreme manner, they may be liable to the plaintiff for IIED. It's important to note that 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 female student, to his office, and abruptly accuses her of immoral conduct with various male students. A bullies B for an hour, and threatens her with public disgrace unless she confesses. B suffers severe emotional distress, and resulting illness. A is probably 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 likely 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 under an IIED theory.

    Learn more about intentional conduct and negligence in personal injury cases.

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