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Suing for Emotional Distress at Work

Suing for Emotional Distress at Work

Work can be stressful enough without having to deal with a co-worker's outrageous behavior. Despite repeated requests for help, your manager is not taking your complaints seriously. Now you're having trouble sleeping, you feel anxious, and thoughts of going to work depress you. You start to wonder if you can sue your employer for emotional distress.

Under the law, emotional distress or mental anguish is humiliation or fury that one experiences from another's conduct. If you're experiencing emotional distress due to another person's negligent or outrageous intentional acts, you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages. The law in this area is complicated. Before you file a lawsuit, it's important to understand the two forms of emotional distress recognized by the law.

Proving an Emotional Distress Claim

There are two types of emotional distress claims. Emotional distress is inflicted negligently or intentionally. The difference is based on the state of mind of the company or person responsible for performing the harmful act. Each form of emotional distress requires proof that specific actions did or did not occur.

Here are the basics:

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

If you suffer from emotional distress that is caused by someone's negligent conduct, you may be able to recover for NIED. Generally speaking, a successful claim will prove the following elements:

  • The defendant was negligent, reckless, or willfully violated a statutory (written law) duty
  • The plaintiff suffered emotional harm (and accompanying physical harm in some states)
  • The defendant's careless conduct caused the emotional distress

Most states require a "reasonable person" standard in judging a defendant. That means a negligent defendant should know their actions would foreseeably result in emotional distress. But some states require that a plaintiff be within a zone of danger that puts them at risk of harm. A minority of states simply require that the defendant's actions have minimal harm to a victim.

Generally, a defendant has a legal duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing emotional distress to others. The person harmed by the negligent act can bring a claim of NIED. Bystanders who witnessed the accident also may file such claims in some states.

For example, you could bring a claim for NIED if you were almost crushed by a poorly maintained piece of equipment in the workplace. However, your claim would most likely be unsuccessful if you witnessed a co-worker nearly being crushed and were not within the "zone of danger." What if you, as a witness, were not in harm's way? States with bystander laws require that the incident involve a close relative, such as a family member or loved one.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

IIED is sometimes called the "tort of outrage" since it's based on extreme or outrageous behavior that is intentionally or recklessly performed. In general, the elements are similar to NIED but include aspects of specific intent and outrageousness. In an employment context, that means the employer or agent:

  • Acted intentionally or recklessly
  • Showed extreme and outrageous conduct
  • Caused the employee severe mental distress

It's difficult to prove an IIED claim since there are no clear guidelines on what represents extreme and outrageous conduct. However, it must be more than insults, threats, or annoyances. An example of behavior that does not meet the “outrageous" standard is an employer who calls an employee a silly goose. Contrast this with a boss who repeatedly berates their workers by threatening to chop their heads off. This latter scenario would be far more likely to be found extreme and outrageous.

Many unpleasant emotions, such as shame, fright, and embarrassment, qualify as emotional distress. The courts are not looking for an extreme response from the victim. Instead, they ask if a reasonable person could not cope with the mental distress resulting from the defendant's actions.

Suing an Employer for the Acts of Its Employees

An employer can be held legally responsible for an employee's actions when:

  • The conduct that caused the emotional distress is within the scope of the employee's job
  • If the employer consented to the conduct.

For example, scope of employment claims can occur when store security staff wrongfully accuses a shopper of theft by name over a crowded store's intercom.

Typically, employers are found liable for an employee's actions through a process legally known as ratification. Each state has its law defining "ratification," but proof of the following facts is frequently required:

  • The employer had actual knowledge of the specific conduct
  • The employer knew the behavior was harmful
  • The employer failed to take adequate steps to remedy the situation

An employer may also have vicarious liability for employee misconduct if:

  • The employee caused emotional distress to another while on the clock
  • An activity the employee was hired to do caused the emotional distress
  • The employer benefited from the employee's job activity

In workplace claims, emotional distress is often alleged along with other harmful conduct, such as sexual harassment. For example, an employer can be held responsible for IIED after failing to respond to numerous complaints of sexual harassment committed by a manager working for that employer.

Damages for Emotional Distress

How do you put a price on emotional distress? Generally, payment of damages for an IIED or NIED claim is proportional to the seriousness of the emotional injury. This is a decision for the jury if your claim goes to trial. Factors influencing damages include:

  • The outrageousness of the defendant's behavior
  • The presence of accompanying physical injuries
  • The amount of harm suffered
  • Whether the emotional distress is continuing

These factors will be part of your economic damages claim. Economic damages include quantifiable financial losses that result from your emotional trauma. For example, medical bills for present and future treatment are easily identified. But how do you put a price on something like post-traumatic stress disorder? You may claim pain and suffering for emotional pains that carry on over time.

Emotional distress damages are a part of pain and suffering damages. Pain and suffering can include physical pain as well. However, the anguish and torment of emotional distress may be a large component of pain and suffering damages in these cases.

A plaintiff can claim pain and suffering due to mental anguish that might degrade their mental health. Medical records compiled by a mental health professional might show that a victim continues to have panic attacks. The plaintiff can use this evidence to bolster their damage claim.

Filing an Emotional Distress Claim? You May Need Professional Legal Help

Emotional distress is a very fact-intensive claim. It is difficult to prove due to the lack of visible harm, such as a broken arm. But it's a legitimate injury that can seriously disrupt your life. You may want to seek professional legal advice if you have suffered emotional distress.

personal injury attorney can help you better understand the law in your state regarding emotional distress at work. But if your emotional distress case is strictly regarding your work environment, two other kinds of lawyers may help.

Some work-related emotional distress lawsuits may need to be handled by an attorney who practices employment or workers' compensation law.

Some lawyers will provide a free case evaluation to answer frequently asked questions (FAQs). A client relationship with a qualified attorney can greatly benefit your personal injury case. Each state has a time limit to file personal injury claims or employment claims. This is known as a statute of limitations.

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