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How to Prove Emotional Distress

Distressed woman hugging pillow.
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

A lot of legal disputes are about righting wrongs. In most cases, the law is concerned with tangible harms — stolen property, physical pain or physical injury, even lost wages from not being able to work. Those are somewhat quantifiable, and thus, they can be tied to a monetary value.

But take something like emotional distress. This type of harm delves into the complex realm of mental suffering, recognizing the profound impact emotions can have on one's well-being. However, unlike a broken bone or a stolen car, emotional distress presents a unique challenge: it is invisible, subjective, and often intertwined with personal experiences and vulnerabilities.

Thus, emotional distress may be one of the most difficult injuries to prove. There are often no physical symptoms. There aren't X-rays someone can point to, or even a scar you can display to prove your injuries. Instead, emotional distress is psychological. While emotional trauma can be just as severe as physical injuries, plaintiffs can have a hard time proving to a court they are entitled to damages given the difficulty of proving mental health harm.

For those considering emotional distress claims, we'll sum up a little bit on the legal theory behind this area of law and give you some pointers that could help you with your claim.

Was it Intentional or Just Negligent?

In the context of legal causes of action, the two main types of emotional distress are intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).

1. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

  • This claim arises when someone deliberately acts in a way that causes severe emotional suffering, exceeding the bounds of decency and outrage. The key point is the intentional nature of the conduct.
  • Examples of IIED could include:
    • Malicious gossip campaigns aimed at destroying someone's reputation.
    • Threats of violence or physical harm.
    • Intrusive acts like stalking or unwanted sexual advances.
    • Outrageous conduct during a business transaction that causes severe emotional harm (bad behavior is not enough, it has to be extreme).

2. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

  • This claim involves unintentional conduct that breaches a duty of care, leading to foreseeable and severe emotional suffering. Like other claims based on a theory of negligence, with NIED, the focus is on the breach of duty causing emotional harm.
  • Examples of NIED could include:
    • Witnessing a loved one's injury due to a driver's negligence that caused a car accident.
    • Experiencing emotional devastation as a result of professional malpractice.
    • Being exposed to traumatic events as a bystander, such as witnessing a violent crime.

It's important to note that these are just general categories, and specific legal requirements and interpretations may vary depending on the jurisdiction. Additionally, there are other legal classifications of emotional distress used in different contexts, such as in employment law or tort law.

Tips for a Strong Case

Proving a claim for emotional distress can be intricate due to the subjective nature of emotional experiences and the lack of tangible evidence. However, several key considerations increase the likelihood of a successful claim:

  1. Severity. The emotional distress must be severe and beyond what a reasonable person would experience in similar circumstances. Courts consider factors like intensity, duration, and impact on daily life. The more intense the mental anguish, the better chance you have of proving that your emotional distress was severe enough to deserve compensation. In some cases, however -- particularly, cases alleging negligent (rather than intentional) infliction of emotional distress, courts will typically require some sort of physical injury as well.
  2. Duration and Progression. Persistent and recurring pain that remains with you for a long period of time, like post-traumatic stress, may also help prove severe emotional distress. Short-lived emotional reactions are less likely to meet the threshold of severity compared to prolonged distress significantly disrupting your daily life. Evidence of ongoing therapy, medication use, or changes in your personal and professional life due to the emotional distress showcases its long-term consequences. Also, finding a pattern and progression of your emotional distress can be convincing. For example, initial shock leading to ongoing anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over time paints a clearer picture of the ongoing harm caused by the defendant's actions
  3. Related Bodily Harm. While it may be difficult to point out evidence of emotional distress, you may more easily provide evidence of related bodily injury like ulcers, headaches, and other physical signs of distress.
  4. Causation. You must establish a clear link between the defendant's conduct and your emotional suffering. This means proving that the defendant's actions, whether intentional or negligent, directly caused your emotional distress. The more extreme the underlying cause of the emotional distress, the more likely a court will find emotional distress. For example, surviving a bombing may be more likely to support a claim than being the victim of an ordinary read-end car accident that resulted in no physical injuries.
  5. Evidence. While proving emotional distress can be challenging, documenting your experiences is crucial. This includes:
  • Medical records of therapy sessions or diagnoses related to emotional distress.
  • Witness statements from individuals who observed your emotional state.
  • Personal journals or diaries documenting your emotions and their connection to the defendant's conduct.
  • Evidence of any changes in your daily life, such as missed work days or altered social interactions.

You will typically need to incorporate several of these methods in proving your claim. For example, you may want to demonstrate both the intensity and duration of your distress and provide supporting medical documentation from your doctor for the psychological pain and any related physical injuries.

If you or a family member are considering an emotional distress lawsuit, you will want to work with an experienced personal injury attorney. Proof can be very difficult in these claims, and a personal injury lawyer can help guide you through your emotional distress case.

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