Can You Sue for Emotional Distress? (2024)

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.


Read in 4 mins

Emotional distress often describes a category of non-economic damages that a plaintiff can seek in many types of civil tort claims. A jury can award a plaintiff compensation for mental, emotional and psychological harm resulting from a tortious act such as medical malpractice or fraud. But can you sue for emotional distress that is unrelated to a separate legal claim?

What Is Emotional Distress

Emotional distress describes a category of mental injuries that can occur in combination with physical injuries or on its own. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes the symptoms of emotional distress. Common signs can include anger, overwhelming sadness, lack of energy, unexplained aches and pains, headaches and other psychological and physical symptoms.

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Suing for Emotional Distress

Whether you can succeed in a lawsuit for emotional distress depends on various legal factors and the specific circumstances of your case. Most states recognize two types of causes of action related to emotional distress: intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The elements of an emotional distress claim vary from state to state. State laws set out the different burdens of proof, legal requirements and evidence needed to successfully recover from an emotional distress claim. Some states require that plaintiffs prove their emotional distress caused a medically diagnosable condition.

Typically, only the person who is the direct target of the defendant's conduct can file an emotional distress lawsuit. However, certain situations also allow bystanders who witness an egregious event to pursue such a claim. For example, a mother who witnesses the murder of her child may be able to pursue a claim for her own emotional distress.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

States that recognize a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress generally require a plaintiff to prove:

  • The defendant acted intentionally or recklessly.
  • The conduct was extreme and outrageous.
  • The defendant's conduct caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress.

Some states establish a “reasonable person” standard (whether a reasonable person would have suffered emotional distress in response to the defendant's conduct), while others accept the plaintiff's subjective experience.

The question of whether a defendant's conduct was sufficiently extreme and outrageous is usually the linchpin of IIED cases. Courts have attempted to articulate standards for judging this element. For example, Missouri requires that the conduct must be "atrocious" and "utterly intolerable in a civilized community." Illinois courts add that the conduct must go "beyond all possible bounds of decency."

IIED are becoming a more frequent tool to combat workplace sexual harassment and compensate victims in the wave of the #MeToo movement. An employee who is subjected to systemic abuse, sexual advances, threats and retaliation by a person in a position of power may have grounds for an IIED claim.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

Negligent infliction of emotional distress claims require that a plaintiff show they were injured by the defendant's negligent conduct. Other elements of the claim vary from state to state. Examples include requiring a plaintiff to prove:

  • They suffered a physical injury at the time of or shortly after the conduct occurs
  • They witnessed harm occur to a close relative
  • They were in the "zone of harm" and feared being injured by the conduct
  • The defendant should have reasonably foreseen that their conduct would cause the plaintiff to suffer emotional distress

For example, a woman who witnesses the violent injury or death of her child in a car accident may have grounds to file a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim against a drunk driver.

Can I Sue my Neighbor for Emotional Distress?

Many emotional distress claims involve a series of actions rather than just one instance, such as a gay family enduring ongoing homophobic and inflammatory comments. The statute of limitations to file an emotional distress claim typically begins from the date of the most recent incident. The applicable time limits vary from state to state.

Succeeding in an Emotional Distress Lawsuit

To succeed in an emotional distress lawsuit, you must provide evidence that supports each aspect of your claim. This can include:

  • Witness testimony and documentary evidence of the conduct showing its egregiousness
  • Medical documentation, psychological evaluations, testimony from mental health professionals and expert testimony regarding your condition or injuries
  • Witness testimony showing how the distress affects your daily life and functioning

The burden of proof in an emotional distress lawsuit is significant. Even offensive, vindictive, obnoxious and cruel conduct isn't usually enough to succeed.

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How Much Can I Sue for Emotional Distress?

You can pursue compensation for many types of damages in an emotional distress lawsuit. These include economic damages (medical visits, therapy costs, expensive medications, loss of income and other quantifiable costs) and non-economic damages (compensation for your mental anguish). Some states allow plaintiffs to recover punitive damages in cases of extreme misconduct.

How much you can recover depends on many factors. These include the strength of your evidence, the nature of the defendant's conduct and the nature and extent of your damages. If you believe you may have a valid emotional distress claim, contact an experienced personal injury attorney.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Most small claims courts limit the size of the claims they allow, but how much that is varies widely from state to state. Kentucky's limit of $2,500 is the lowest in the U.S., while Delaware, Texas and Tennessee allow "small" claims of $20,000 or more. The majority of U.S. jurisdictions have limits of $7,500 or less.

  • Most states have "tort immunity" laws protecting local governments and workers acting in their official government capacity from being sued for negligence, although there may be an exception depending on the facts of your case.

    You can sue a city employee for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In certain circumstances, the city can be liable for the conduct of its agents and employees. Unfortunately, you can't sue a city for its quarterback choking in the last minute of a must-win playoff game.

  • If you file your response to a lawsuit timely and correctly, you are free to include any applicable counterclaims. To succeed on your counterclaim, you will need to establish evidence meeting the burden of proof in your jurisdiction. (Although being sued is unpleasant, this alone is probably insufficient evidence to support an emotional distress counterclaim.

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