Can You Successfully Sue Someone for Mental Anguish?

By Stephanie Reid
Courts considering mental anguish cases have abandoned the requirement of actual physical injury.

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In a civil lawsuit, a plaintiff may raise a number of claims against the defendant. If the defendant engaged in conduct that injured the plaintiff to the extent that a reasonable person would experience significant sadness, anxiety or distress, the plaintiff may make a claim for mental anguish. Cases that give rise to a claim for mental anguish include wrongful death, disfigurement, serious bodily injury, or the death or injury of a close loved one. In contrast to quantifiable financial damages, mental anguish is considered a general damage and the judge or jury assigns a dollar value, based on the evidence of anguish the plaintiff or other witnesses have presented. If the plaintiff was damaged emotionally by the defendant’s malicious actions, he may be able to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Distinction Between General and Specific Damages

In a negligence lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove four elements: duty, breach, causation and damages. When proving damages, the plaintiff presents evidence that relates to the detriment suffered because of the defendant’s actions. If the defendant caused damage that is easily quantifiable through invoices, hospital bills or lost wages, these damages are compensatory damages. If the defendant caused damage that is not quantifiable through documentation and is based upon the plaintiff’s testimony and experience, these damages are general damages. Mental anguish is an example of a general damage, as is pain and suffering, loss of consortium or physical pain.

Establishing Mental Anguish

To establish a successful cause of action for mental anguish, a plaintiff must present evidence that meets the legal threshold that a “reasonable person” in the same situation would have been emotionally or mentally injured by the incident. Each jurisdiction maintains its own standard for mental anguish and, in general, the factual scenario must be alarming, disturbing or shocking. To meet this standard, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that counseling or medication was necessary following the incident. Nearly every court has held that witnessing the death of a child, spouse or parent is sufficient for a finding of mental anguish.

Quantifying Mental Anguish

Since it is the plaintiff or witness testimony that establishes mental anguish, it is up to the court to quantify the extent of the mental anguish. When calculating a financial award for mental anguish, the judge or jury must take into account the evidence regarding the plaintiff’s experience following defendant’s actions. To confound the issue, once the jury has established that a “reasonable person” would experience mental anguish in the situation, it must abandon that standard and determine the extent of mental anguish that the specific plaintiff experienced. To clarify, even if a reasonable person would have been horrified by the event, if the plaintiff presented evidence that he was only mildly affected, the jury must award compensation congruent with its finding.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In some cases, a defendant goes out of his way to emotionally or mentally damage the plaintiff. If the defendant acted with intent and malice to deliberately frighten or otherwise cause a plaintiff distress, the plaintiff may be successful in suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is a separate and distinct cause of action, and requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s actions exceeded “all bounds of decent behavior.” This includes lying to the plaintiff that her spouse was killed in an accident or to introduce stimuli to the plaintiff known to cause extreme fear.

About the Author

Stephanie Reid has been writing professionally since 2007, with work published in the Virginia Bar Association's "Family Law Quarterly" and the "Whittier Journal of Child and Family Advocacy." She received her Juris Doctor from Regent University and her Bachelor of Arts in French and child development from Florida State University. Reid is admitted to practice law in Delaware and Maryland.

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