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
- 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.