Home Mental Health & Well-Being Can You Sue for Emotional Distress? Understanding Your Rights

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress? Understanding Your Rights

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The psychological impact of certain events or actions can often be as harmful, if not more so, than physical harm. It’s well-established that chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, and extreme emotional distress can significantly impede a person’s ability to live a normal life. As such, the law does recognise emotional distress as a form of injury. But, can you sue for emotional distress?

The short answer is yes. However, the more nuanced answer is that it depends on the circumstances and jurisdiction.

Emotional distress: an overview

Emotional distress, in legal terms, refers to a state of suffering that someone undergoes as a result of another person’s conduct. It includes feelings of fear, humiliation, anxiety, depression, or grief that are so profound they impair the victim’s everyday life. Although everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, for a claim to be legally valid, the emotional distress must be severe and beyond what a reasonable person would be expected to endure.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED)

There are two primary types of emotional distress claims: intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).

IIED is when the defendant’s outrageous conduct was intended to cause emotional distress, and it did cause severe emotional distress. This type of claim does not require physical harm, but proving the behavior was extreme and outrageous can be challenging.

On the other hand, NIED is when the defendant’s negligence caused the emotional distress. Some jurisdictions require physical injury or threat of physical harm to establish NIED, while others simply require a close relationship between the victim and someone physically injured by the defendant’s negligence.

Proving emotional distress

The burden of proof in emotional distress claims is on the plaintiff. You will need to show that the defendant’s actions directly resulted in your emotional distress and that the distress was severe. Moreover, your emotional distress must be medically significant or manifest physical symptoms to be legally recognized.

Evidence can include psychiatric records, testimony from mental health professionals, personal diaries, or witness testimony. A track record of therapy or counseling following the distressing event can also bolster your case.

The role of jurisdiction

Laws regarding emotional distress vary from state to state, and some jurisdictions have stricter requirements for proving emotional distress. For example, some require the plaintiff to prove physical injury or the threat thereof, while others do not. Consulting with a local attorney will provide clarity on the specific requirements in your area.

Compensation and damages

If you successfully prove emotional distress, you may be entitled to damages. This can include compensation for medical expenses (including mental health services), lost income if you’ve been unable to work, and compensation for pain and suffering.

In some cases, if the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious, punitive damages might be awarded. These are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future.

Final thoughts

While you can sue for emotional distress, it’s important to note that these cases can be complex and emotionally taxing. Building a convincing case requires substantial evidence and a deep understanding of the applicable laws. It is strongly recommended to consult with an experienced attorney if you believe you have a valid claim for emotional distress. Remember, while the legal process can be daunting, it’s there to protect your rights and provide a means to justice.


Tim Williamson, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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