What Are the Kinds of Emotional Distress One Can Sue for in a Lawsuit?

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., - Updated April 15, 2017
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Emotional stress claims arise from three different kinds of acts by the defending party. The defendant's acts may or may not result in physical harm to the plaintiff, but can still result in emotional pain and suffering.

Tort Law

Most civil suits involve a claim that one party has wronged the other. The legal name for such a wrong is tort. Compensation claims for emotional distress are claims under tort law, and fall into one of three categories:

  • The claim arises from the negligent acts of the defending party.
  • The claim arises from the intentional acts of the defending party.
  • The claim arises from the consequences of the acts of the defending party.

Negligence

Tort claims for negligence arise when the plaintiff asserts in a lawsuit that she was harmed as a result of an act by another. The plaintiff has to prove that the defending party had a duty to exercise reasonable care, but breached that duty by failing to act in a reasonable manner. The plaintiff must also show that the negligence resulted in actual harm and, finally, must assert a claim for damages for the harm done. Proving these four elements – duty, breach of duty, actual harm and the claim for damages – underlie a successful tort claim based on negligence.

A tort claim for emotional distress based on negligence often accompanies another claim for physical injuries arising from the same act of negligence. Slips and falls, for example, can have both components: the plaintiff is injured in a fall caused by the defendant's negligence, and the pain and suffering that result are emotionally distressing. The tort includes two claims, one for the physical injury and an accompanying claim for the emotional distress that accompanies the injury.

Intentional Cause of Emotional Distress

Torts based on claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress are similar to those based on negligence, the difference being that the second element – the defendant's breach of duty – is intentional rather than simply a negligent breach of duty.

A prominent television personality, for example, may repeatedly sexually harass his female assistant even after she has objected. Even though the host has not sexually assaulted his assistant physically, he ignores her discomfort and continues to make lewd remarks or improper sexual suggestions. The emotional distress she suffers results from the host's intentional acts.

Emotional Distress Arising from the Consequences of Acts by the Defendant

Sometimes the defending party's acts cause the plaintiff to suffer emotional distress even when there was no intention to do so and negligence is absent. Unlike in a negligence claim, the plaintiff does not attempt to first prove that the defendant should reasonably have exercised greater care or in a claim of intentional infliction of distress that the defendant deliberately acted to harm the plaintiff. This tort is based only on the consequences of the act, and the plaintiff's suit may begin simply by demonstrating that the act occurred. For example, an experienced ski lift manufacturer constructs a new ski lift with great care. Despite this, a tower fails. The plaintiff watches as her child plummets to the ground, suffering serious injury, pain and suffering. The mother's emotional distress is a consequence of the manufacturer having built the tower that failed.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.

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