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Can I Sue for Verbal Assault or Insulting Language?

By George Khoury, Esq. on January 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In some limited situations, an individual can be sued for yelling at or for insulting another person. While the threshold for when an insult or scream crosses the line is rather hazy, there are some clearly defined lines that are helpful.

For instance, if the yelling is threatening violence, or is done in a way where the listener fears for their physical safety, there are likely possible legal consequences. Not only is the act of making a threat of violence illegal in every state criminally (so long as the threat is credible), but it can also lead to civil torts, such as assault, or intentional inflection of emotional distress.

Are Insults Actionable?

While some might think that the First Amendment of the Constitution would protect insults, there are indeed limits. Generally, those limits tend to involve insults that shock the conscious, or offend a listener to the point of producing an adverse physical reaction, or invoke violence.

Insults can also make up the basis of an Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) claim. IIED requires a plaintiff to prove that another person intentionally acted (which could include making insults) with the specific purpose of causing the plaintiff to be shocked, distressed, upset, or emotionally hurt or injured.

Additionally, insults that are discriminatory can also lead to additional legal liability depending on the context and state law. For instance, in California, the Unruh Act prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers.

The Tort of Assault

While, generally, people think of assault as the actual hitting or beating of another person, under the law, the legal claim of assault does not require any touching to occur. For an assault to occur, an aggressor only needs to make some overt act or statement (backed up by context or other conduct), that would make a reasonable person fear for their safety.

For an assault to be actionable in a civil court, the person being assaulted needs to be able to prove not only that the incident happened, but also that a reasonable person would have feared for their safety, and that as a result, they suffered damages, such as emotional distress or other more tangible financial losses (such as costs for therapy).

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