Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Claims for the infliction of emotional distress allow a plaintiff to recover for the socially outrageous conduct of the defendant. Tort law recognizes emotional harm and distress as a very real thing, and plaintiffs who have suffered other harms are allowed to recover for emotional damages flowing from those harms. For example, a person may recover for the emotional injuries that flow from medical malpractice without having to prove additional elements for the claim of emotional injury. In an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the plaintiff alleges emotional harm alone, thus they must prove particular elements that give rise to emotional harms. Because As a result of the uncertainty inherent in proving only emotional harm, the standards for making a successful claim are quite high.

A successful claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress requires a plaintiff to prove three elements:

1) The defendant must cause severe emotional distress,
2) intentionally or recklessly,
3) by extreme and outrageous conduct.

Severe emotional distress is not very well defined. Generally speaking, emotional distress is considered severe when no reasonable person would be expected to endure it. There is typically no requirement that expert medical testimony be provided to prove distress, but most jurisdictions do require some form of evidence supporting severe distress. Evidence of distress includes physical manifestations like nausea, vomiting, or seeking medical attention. Some courts require a physical manifestation of the distress, and within those jurisdictions some are very demanding in that regard. In most jurisdictions, mere crying or simply claiming to be upset are insufficient. Typically, the severity of the distress can actually proven by the outrageousness of the conduct. In other words, truly outrageous conduct is likely to be followed by severe emotional distress. In an absence of other supporting evidence, the offensive conduct likely needs to be proportionately more outrageous.

The conduct must also be intentional or reckless in nature. A plaintiff can prove intentional behavior by offering evidence that tends to show the defendant purposely acted to cause the distress or harm, or knew to a substantial certainty that harm was likely to occur. Recklessness requires proving that the defendant willfully disregarded the possibility of harm. A mere desire to cause harm, however, is insufficient. A plaintiff must also prove that the conduct was outrageous.

Extreme and outrageous conduct may be the hardest element to prove. Courts typically only recognize conduct as extreme and outrageous when it is abjectly awful and breaks all the customary bounds of civilized society. Mere insults, economic threats (e.g. threats of terminating employment or eviction), petty indignities, or annoyances are insufficient to prove this element. There are no bright lines about what constitutes outrageous conduct, but courts typically look at the whole of the circumstance to make their determination.

Extreme and outrageous conduct is often found in a combination of bad behaviors. There are four general circumstances that can lead to a finding of outrageous behavior. First, outrage can be found where the defendant abuses their position of power or authority. Second, it is considered outrageous to emotionally harm or take advantage of a person whom the defendant knows is particularly vulnerable. Third, even if individual acts are not severe, outrage can be found where the behavior is constant or repeated and the plaintiff is unable to leave the defendant’s presence. Fourth, acting violently or threatening serious harm against persons or property in which the plaintiff has a special interest. Threatening serious harm means acting in such a way that serious harm could result, like actually throwing bricks at your spouse or dog– mere verbal threats are typically insufficient. None of these circumstances could be considered dispositive, but they do tend to be circumstances where a person would is be likely to feel severe emotional distress (i.e. abuse at the hands of those against whom they are powerless).


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