In tort law, intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) refers to when a defendant intentionally or recklessly behaves in a way that is so “extreme and outrageous” that it causes another person to suffer severe emotional distress or trauma. When IIED occurs, the afflicted individual may be able to recover compensatory and punitive damages from the defendant.

However, due to state laws and the challenge of proving mental harms, it is very difficult to bring a successful lawsuit based on a claim of IIED. It should also be noted that not all conduct will qualify as an act of IIED since its definition is fairly specific.

Additionally, there are some instances where a person may be able to recover under a related tort theory known as, “negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”)”. NIED is similar to IIED, but instead of intentional behavior, the defendant must have acted in a negligent manner. Also, unlike IIED, NIED requires the victim to prove that they suffered some kind of physical injury as well.

Lastly, both IIED and NIED are generally referred to using the umbrella term of “emotional distress”. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that they are two separate actions and thus require different elements of proof.

How Do I Prove Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress by my Employer?

Although the circumstances may be limited, it is sometimes possible to sue an employer for emotional distress. For instance, an employee may be exposed to something in their workplace that causes them to suffer emotional harm. This can happen when an employer’s intentional or negligent conduct induces the employee to experience severe emotional distress.

In such a case, an employee must be able to prove all of the following factors:

  • That their employer, co-worker, or other representative of the employer acted in an extreme and outrageous manner;
  • The defendant must have either intended to cause or must have known it would cause another person to suffer severe emotional distress or trauma;
  • That the conduct did in fact cause the employee to experience severe emotional distress or trauma; and
  • That their conduct was directly related to this injury.

It should also be noted that these factors may vary from state-to-state, and that other state laws (e.g., labor laws) may interfere with bringing an action.

What Does “Extreme and Outrageous Conduct” Mean?

In proving IIED, “extreme and outrageous conduct” means behavior that goes beyond the bounds of what is considered acceptable by society and is viewed as an act that is intolerable or atrocious. Again, this definition will vary based on state laws.

In states that use the above definition or something similar, the standard is that of a reasonable prudent person. In other words, this conduct must be seen as extreme and outrageous to the average reasonable person.

Some examples that may demonstrate when an employee might be able to sue for emotional distress include being subjected to repeated racial slurs, extreme cases of sexual harassment, and acts like constant bullying or shaming of an employee in front of all their co-workers to the extent it causes post-traumatic stress disorder (i.e., PTSD).

How Do I Prove That I Have Suffered Severe Emotional Distress?

As previously mentioned, an employee must be able to prove intentional infliction of emotional distress by showing the four elements outlined above. Although IIED refers to mental harms, it will often manifest itself as a physical ailment. Generally speaking, it is much easier to prove emotional distress when a victim experiences physical symptoms.

Some symptoms that may support that the employee did suffer emotional distress includes medical evidence, such as records demonstrating that the victim has depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, physical illness, nausea, and potentially anxiety. This also requires being able to show that they did not have any of these symptoms prior to the conduct that caused them.

If successfully proven, emotional distress damages may be issued to the plaintiff. The most common form of damages awarded to a plaintiff in a case for emotional distress is compensatory damages. In extreme cases, they may also receive punitive damages, but this is rare.

What are the Possible Defenses of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress?

There are several possible defenses that a defendant to an IIED case may be able to raise, including:

  • Consent: If the plaintiff consented to the defendant’s conduct, then this will most likely negate their IIED claim. Consent can either be expressed or implied.
  • Context: If the defendant’s behavior is considered normal or appropriate in a given setting, then this fact will likely work in the defendant’s favor.
  • Statute of Limitations: Generally speaking, the statute of limitations period for bringing an IIED claim in most states is one to three years. As such, if this time frame has expired, the defendant may use this as a defense.
  • Employment: In some cases, simply being an “at-will” employee can bar a claim for IIED. For example, it might be hard for an at-will employee to claim they suffered IIED after being terminated if the employer followed proper protocols.
  • Workers’ Compensation Statutes: Depending on state laws and the facts of a case, workers’ compensation may act as a defense to a claim of IIED. The reason for this is because workers’ compensation benefits generally prevent an employee from suing their employer.
  • Employee Contract: If the employee has an arbitration clause in their employment agreement, then the court may dismiss the action.

What is the Difference Between Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress vs. Workers’ Compensation?

Workers’ compensation is a state-mandated insurance program that provides compensation benefits to employees who suffer work-related injuries. The primary advantage to these benefits is that a worker who is injured on the job will be guaranteed compensation regardless of who was at fault for their injuries. The downside is that by collecting workers’ compensation, the employee typically has to give up their right to sue their employer in court.

IIED, on the other hand, is in action in tort law that goes beyond the workplace and can apply in any scenario. Although states have enacted IIED statutes, these laws have nothing to do with insurance programs or state labor laws. Also, unlike workers’ compensation regulations, IIED does not bar a person from suing their employer.

The other primary difference between the two is that workers’ compensation is meant to provide a remedy for physical injuries. As such, if an employee needs to collect workers’ compensation for mental suffering, the mental harm must stem directly from their physical injury.

In contrast, workers who do not have workers’ compensation benefits will have the option of including IIED as one of the claims in their lawsuit. Thus, their physical and mental injuries can be listed as separate arguments.

Additionally, there are also certain situations where collecting workers’ compensation benefits may not bar an employee from bringing a claim, such as if the emotional distress was brought on by an employer committing assault or battery against the employee or they showed up at the employee’s house and threatened or insulted them.

When Is an Employer Responsible for a Co-Worker’s Conduct?

There are several situations in which an employer may be held responsible for the actions of an employee’s co-worker. This includes when the employee can show that the following facts apply:

  • When a co-worker acted within the course and scope of their employment, and in furtherance of the employer’s business;
  • If the employer failed to address any complaints that were filed by an injured employee against a co-worker’s outrageous conduct; and/or
  • If the co-worker holds an important position in the business where their actions would affect or could be attributed to the employer (e.g., CFO, CTO, VP, etc.).

Thus, whether an employer can actually be held liable for a co-worker’s conduct, will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding each case, as well as the laws of the state where the case is being filed.

Do I Need a Personal Injury Attorney?

If you or a loved one has been injured by the intentional or negligent acts of another, you should contact a local personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer will be able to determine whether you have a viable case, the potential remedies you can recover if the case is successful, and what your chances are of receiving a positive outcome.

In addition, if your claim is not strong enough to litigate, then your lawyer can also help you by researching legal issues that will allow you to bring a case, or alternatively, offer advice on other ways that you may be able to seek relief for your matter.