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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) involves terrible conduct. It must be so awful it causes severe emotional trauma. IIED is an intentional tort, a civil wrong committed on purpose. The victim can recover damages from the person causing the emotional distress. Courts are more likely to allow recovery when the emotional distress damages come with some form of physical injury. The physical harm must result from the defendant's conduct.

Not all offensive conduct qualifies as intentional infliction of emotional distress. Even people in civilized society must deal with a certain level of rude or offensive behavior. When the conduct rises to a reprehensible level, things are different. Recovery for the resulting emotional trauma and mental anguish becomes available.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: The Elements

States recognize different types of emotional distress claims. While some states' specific rules for IIED differ, the following intentional tort law elements are fairly common:

  1. Extreme or outrageous conduct
  2. That is intentional or reckless
  3. Causes severe emotional distress or emotional injury (and potential bodily harm)

If the situation satisfies the elements above, the defendant is liable for both:

Other parties may sometimes recover for emotional harm. This is true where the extreme and outrageous conduct wasn't directed at them. This kind of claim typically involves extreme or outrageous conduct toward a claimant's family member. The conduct must occur while the family members are in the claimant's presence. This type of claim varies even more widely between states than the basic intentional infliction tort. Here are some of the general elements of the cause of action:

  1. Extreme and outrageous conduct
  2. Directed at a third person
  3. That is intentional or reckless
  4. Causes severe emotional distress
  5. Directed to a member of the third person's immediate family (whether bodily harm occurs)
  6. Directed at any other person present if bodily harm occurs

A person who suffers severe emotional distress from mere insults or annoyances will likely not have any variation of the IIED claim. Other tort claims, such as defamation, are available. A defendant's actions may amount to outrageous conduct. Claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress are viable under these circumstances. This is why IIED is known as a tort of outrage.

Extreme and Outrageous Conduct

It is important to define what exactly counts as extreme and outrageous conduct. This is required for a claim for IIED, even if the defendant's act involves malice or harmful intent.

With some exceptions, extreme and outrageous conduct goes beyond offensive acts. Even in a civilized community, people must have a certain level of thick skin. They must have the ability to weather ordinary rude or obnoxious behavior.

To rise to this level, the conduct in emotional distress cases must exceed all possible bounds of decency. Everyday insults or rudeness don't usually qualify as extreme and outrageous conduct. Still, they can rise to that level if there is some kind of special relationship between the parties, such as one of trust. Other times, such as in the case of sexual abuse, it's easier to prove outrageous conduct.

Ordinary insults or actions can sometimes count as extreme and outrageous behavior. But this is only true if the actor knows the victim is susceptible to emotional distress. This could be due to a physical or mental health condition or abnormality. For example, according to her medical records, Adam knows that Barbara is intensely claustrophobic. Still, Adam intentionally locks her in a closet to scare her. Here, Barbara could recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Similarly, wrongfully traumatizing someone with post-traumatic stress disorder could amount to IIED.

Exercising a legal right can never amount to intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is true even if the behavior does cause severe mental distress. For example, a landlord appropriately initiates eviction proceedings against a sick and destitute widow who has not paid rent in a year. Here, the landlord's actions won't constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is true even if the widow does suffer an extreme emotional reaction. Since the landlord only exercised their legal rights, their behavior is likely privileged.

In the end, a jury in a personal injury lawsuit decides whether the conduct in question is extreme and outrageous.


The actor must act with intent or recklessness. In other words, the actor must intend to cause severe emotional distress or know that severe emotional distress is likely to occur.

For example, someone receives a text message from their significant other at a friend's house. They become angry and smash an urn containing their friend's mother's ashes. Here, the friend could win an intentional infliction lawsuit. They could win under reckless disregard or negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).

Severe Emotional Distress

The emotional distress in response to extreme and outrageous behavior must reach a "severe" level. The exact definition of severe emotional distress is vague. Plaintiffs must prove to a jury that the emotional distress they experienced was severe. A fair level of severity will justify an award for intentional infliction.

Guidelines determine whether an emotional disturbance counts as severe emotional distress. Extreme and outrageous conduct must cause suffering that no reasonable person should endure. Then, a jury will likely believe the experience reached severe emotional distress.

The intensity and duration of the emotional distress also contribute to its severity. The longer the emotional disturbance continues, the more likely it's causing severe emotional distress.

In a personal injury case, a plaintiff must use evidence to show their emotional distress to a jury. For example, a plaintiff can use persistent anxiety and paranoia from a bad Halloween prank. They can use this to show that they suffered extreme emotional distress due to the conduct.

Sometimes the very nature of the conduct in question will suffice. It will be enough to show that the victim suffered severe emotional distress. If the behavior is particularly disturbing, the plaintiff may not have to offer much evidence to support their claims. The behavior itself is so reprehensible that emotional distress is almost assumed.

Bodily harm also acts as an indicator that severe emotional distress has occurred. Ulcers or headaches, for example, can show that the plaintiff has experienced severe emotional distress. The distress showed itself through these physical symptoms. Many jurisdictions (states) will want to see some manifestation of concurrent physical harm. They will look for physical injuries before awarding damages for IIED.

Have an Emotional Distress Claim? Get Legal Help Today

Are you or a loved one unsure whether the facts of your claim justify filing a lawsuit? Do you want to better understand the law in your state for intentional infliction of emotional distress? Contact a personal injury attorney near you. Personal injury lawyers can assess your situation and recommend action.

Remember that each state has a different statute of limitations for IIED claims. The statute of limitations is the legal time limit, after which you can no longer file your case.

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