Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims (NIED)

In an NIED claim, the plaintiff asks for compensation for emotional distress, sometimes when no physical injury occurred.

Updated by , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law


Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) is a type of personal injury claim. You may have an NIED claim if someone negligently (carelessly) causes you emotional harm. Most NIED claims are brought by people who witnessed a traumatic event or experienced something that caused them to fear for their own safety or the safety of their loved ones.

Essential Elements of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED) Claims

Emotional or psychological harm is a part of many personal injury claims—"pain and suffering" damages after a car accident injury, for example. NIED claims are different. You can sometimes file a personal injury lawsuit for NIED even in the absence of physical injuries. (You may also be able to sue someone who intentionally inflicts emotional distress on you.)

Hurt feelings alone aren't enough to make an NIED claim. NIED laws vary from state to state, but most states apply either an "impact" rule, a "zone of danger" rule, or a "foreseeability" rule. Most states also require you to show that your emotional distress was so severe that it caused some type of physical symptoms to manifest, such as a decreased appetite or insomnia.

The "Impact" Rule

The "impact rule" is only followed in a few states. This rule requires you to prove that the person who hurt you (called the "defendant") made some kind of physical contact with you, however minor. The impact doesn't have to cause you physical injury and your emotional distress doesn't have to result from the physical contact. For example, let's say you witness a drunk driver hit a pedestrian. The accident causes a pebble to kick up off the road and hit you. You aren't physically injured by the pebble, but you're emotionally devasted by seeing the crash and its aftermath. The pebble hitting you is enough to satisfy the impact rule.

"Zone of Danger" Rule

The "zone of danger" rule is followed in a number of states. This rule says that to bring an NIED claim, you have to be close enough to the defendant's negligent act to be at immediate risk of physical harm. Like the impact rule, the zone of danger rule limits an NIED claim to emotional harm based almost exclusively on fear of injury.

"Foreseeability" Rule

The "foreseeability" rule is followed by a majority of states. In foreseeability states, defendants who could have reasonably foreseen that someone would experience emotional distress from their actions can be liable for NIED. This rule doesn't create the same kind of artificial restrictions on NIED claims that the "impact" and "zone of danger" rules do. The essential difference is that there is no requirement that the defendant's negligent conduct involve some form or risk of physical harm.

Emotional Harm Creating Physical Symptoms

In addition to following either the "impact", "zone of danger", or "foreseeability" rules, most states also require you to show that your emotional harm is severe enough to cause physical symptoms.

Depending on the state, physical symptoms might include loss of appetite or sleeplessness. In other words, the "physical" symptoms need not be severe, but simply observable and objective.

This requirement is meant to prevent NIED claims based solely on internal, subject, and unverifiable experiences. Some states, however, require the physical symptoms of an NIED claim to be more severe than sleeplessness, loss of appetite, or anxiety. Some states also require that the symptoms show up immediately after the defendant's negligent act. The law in this area is evolving as we understand more about mental health, and a few states no longer require physical symptoms in NIED cases. Talk to a lawyer about the specific requirements in your state.

"Bystander" Cases Involving Close Family Members

A "bystander case" is where a close family member witnesses or arrives immediately on the scene of an accident where another family member was injured or killed by the defendant's negligence.

The difference between a bystander case and a typical NIED case is that the person suing in a bystander case (the "plaintiff") experienced mental or emotional anguish as a result of seeing a close family member suffer grave injury, as opposed to being the direct victim of the defendant's negligent act.

For example, a parent who witnesses a child's severe injury as a result of someone's reckless driving, or arrives to witness the immediate aftermath of the crash, would likely have an NIED claim in most states.

Getting Legal Help With an NIED Claim

When the impact of someone else's negligence is significant enough to cause you emotional distress and psychological harm, it makes sense to discuss your situation with a lawyer.

Proving the legitimacy and extent of emotional distress can be a challenge, so it's crucial to have an experienced legal professional on your side. Learn more about how a personal injury lawyer can help and get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer. When you're ready you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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