What is Intention Infliction of Emotional Distress?

11/05/2014
By Logan Quirk

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress – What is this?

A person who has been harmed by the intentional or careless behavior of someone else may sue for damages, which in addition to economic losses (such as destroyed property, medical costs, or the inability or reduced ability to earn a living) can include such non-economic items as compensation for pain and suffering.

 The Nuts and Bolts of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Separate from damages for pain and suffering is a specific civil offense, or tort, known as “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” To succeed with this type of claim, a plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct: (1) was either intentional or reckless (without concern for the likely impact of his or her actions); (2) was extreme, outrageous or reprehensible; (3) and caused the plaintiff to suffer (4) severe and more than momentary mental anguish or emotional distress.

Not every type of offensive conduct will qualify. More is required than merely boorish, impolite or annoying actions, rough or insulting language, or garden-variety unkindness or threats. What is now termed intentional infliction of emotional distress has its origins in English courts, where it was usually described as the offense of “outrage.”

One leading legal commentary describes the type of conduct required as going so far beyond ordinary standards of decency as to be “utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The emotional distress could include such conditions as fright, shame or grief; the conduct must not only be offensive to the individual, but atrocious enough to cause an average person in the community to react to it with immediate outrage.

Is outrageous conduct enough to be considered Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress?

Even if outrageous, some actions won’t support a finding of intentional infliction of emotional damage. A prime example can be found in the lawsuit fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell brought against Hustler magazine over its so-called “ad parody,” which portrayed him as reminiscing over his first sexual encounter (supposedly incestuous and consummated in an outhouse). A jury awarded him $150,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, before a unanimous 1988 Supreme Court decision, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, reversed on First Amendment grounds. Similarly, exercising a legal right is privileged conduct, and so cannot by itself support a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

But the level of outrageousness needed for a successful claim can be reduced if the defendant knew some physical or mental condition rendered the plaintiff unusually susceptible to emotional distress. Cases involving the elderly, young children and pregnant women have allowed recovery on less extreme provocations.

Less egregious actions can also support liability in cases involving public transportation carriers (which have a higher duty to care for their passengers), when the conduct involves dramatic abuse of power by an official, when the conduct is repeated (rather a one-time occurrence), or when the emotional impact on the plaintiff can be shown to have been long-lasting.

One of the greatest hurdles to a successful claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress is proving the severity of the impact the defendant’s conduct had on the plaintiff. When obvious bodily harm accompanies emotional distress, damages for such injuries can be sought along with damages for emotional trauma, even though that is not a necessary part of a intentional infliction of emotional distress case. Evidence the plaintiff suffered from ulcers, high blood pressure, severe headaches, insomnia or depression or similar conditions due to the conduct will bolster such a case.

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