When it comes to physical damage, it is common knowledge that we can sue for injuries suffered or damage done to property etc. but, it’s not so often that people realize they can also sue for emotional damage.
For example, if someone was seriously assaulted, they would of course likely suffer physical injuries which can be used as evidence in a case to prove the assault.
But, being viciously attacked can do a lot more than cause bruising and broken limbs, it can also have a lasting effect on an individual, long after the physical injuries have healed.
Despite its lasting effects, emotional damage is often overlooked or overshadowed by physical damage.
This is probably because physical damage is often very visible and therefore more tangible, whereas emotional damage cannot necessarily be seen or measured.
As a result, suing for emotional damage can be much harder than suing for physical damage. This article will explain what qualifies as emotional distress, how to prove it and other legal ramifications of suing for emotional damage.
What qualifies as emotional distress?
Suing for emotional distress helps victims to recover and move on from the damage done but, the process can be tricky and proving emotional distress as a result of a crime or act can be difficult.
So, what qualifies as emotional distress according to the law?
Typically, if a person was to experience any form of mental suffering or anguish as a result of an incident, regardless of whether it was intended or due to negligence, that person is likely to qualify for suing for emotional distress.
A lot of emotional distress claims will still require a person to have suffered physical harm as a result of an incident in order to sue for emotional distress.
That being said, in recent years it has become more acceptable for people to sue for emotional damage without any physical injury evidence.
For example, cases involving sexual harassment or hostile working environments can result in psychological and emotional distress without causing any physical harm.
According to the courts, emotional damage can be compensated for through a civil lawsuit so, if you are able to provide evidence in support of your claims, you can sue for emotional distress.
How do you prove emotional distress?
Proving emotional distress can be impossible without sufficient evidence. So, understanding what evidence you need to be able to provide is important in knowing if your case will be successful or not.
There are a number of ways in which to prove that you have sustained some form of emotional suffering as a result of an incident.
The most tangible and common form of evidence in an emotional distress case is physical injuries. Injuries sustained as a result of the incident make your case much more believable and measurable.
For example, if the initial incident caused you to suffer severe physical injuries, this will make it more likely for you to appear to be suffering from emotional damage as a result.
Of course, overtly obvious injuries such as broken bones or scarring will prove the incident took place, but you will need more to prove how the incident is affecting you mentally.
For this, anything from new, consistent headaches to ulcers can be evidence of emotional distress.
Perhaps the best form of medical evidence are reports provided by a doctor or psychologist in order to prove emotional distress.
Time is also a factor here because the longer you have been experiencing the distress the better your case will be so, seeking official medical help as soon as you start experiencing emotional symptoms is important.
The more evidence you have the better so, being able to provide any testimonies from doctors or even family and friends describing how they have noticed a change in you will also help your case.
What kind of damages do you experience with emotional distress?
Suffering with emotional distress can manifest itself in any number of ways depending on the person and the specific incident, but there are several common damages emotional distress claims will typically mention. These can include:
- Diminished quality of life
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Sleeplessness and insomnia
- Humiliation, shame, embarrassment etc.
- Strained relationships (with family, friends, etc.)
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Mental anguish
How do you prove mental anguish in court?
Mental anguish is much more extreme than emotional distress such as anxiety, embarrassment or bitterness, and can substantially damage a person’s daily life.
That being said, emotional distress and mental anguish are considered equal under the law.
When claiming mental anguish, a plaintiff must be able to provide evidence of the nature, duration and severity of mental anguish in order to establish a ‘substantial disruption’ to their lifestyle in order to win their case.
So, similarly to proving emotional distress in court, proving mental anguish will require evidence such as extreme anxiety and depression that requires medication or other treatments, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers caused by extreme stress, an inability to sleep and more.
However, just proving one or two of the above symptoms will not be enough to be upheld in court. A plaintiff will need to prove extreme, long-lasting mental anguish and show how it has disrupted their life.
Can I sue someone for stress?
Extreme stress can have a detrimental effect on your overall health, especially your mental wellbeing.
A lot of cases involving stress-related issues stem from workplace stress. Often, employees may have little control over the expectations of their employer and their ability to meet those demands, causing them to feel excessive workplace stress that results in anxiety, depression and even alcoholism etc.
A lot of workplace stress also stems from fears of losing their job, strained workplace relationships such as bullying or harassment, increased workload, and more.
All such examples can cause employers to struggle with illness, anxiety, lack of motivation, poor work/life balance and even death in extreme cases.
Fortunately, workers are protected from undue stress, including harassment, unsafe workplace conditions and excessive workloads, so an employee could sue their employer for stress under federal law such as the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Workplace stress is not the only reason you may experience undue stress. This can also come from other interactions such as a landlord/tenant relationship or a police/citizen relationship, for example.
Can you sue a landlord for emotional distress?
Every state’s laws will require a landlord to fulfil certain duties to their residential tenants, such as the duty to allow their tenants to use the property without interference and provide a habitable living space.
If a landlord was to be found in breach of these duties, a tenant may be able to sue them for damages, including emotional distress.
If a tenant was to sue their landlord for emotional distress damages, a successful case would award the tenant compensation, usually in a sum of money, for the emotional distress caused.
The tenant would of course need to provide evidence that their landlord has inflicted severe emotional distress upon them, either intentionally or negligently.
If a tenant was to sue for intentional emotional distress caused by their landlord, the court will consider the following:
- The conduct that resulted in such emotional distress
- Whether the landlord engaged in outrageous conduct
- If the landlords action was to purposely cause their tenant(s) emotional distress or physical harm that would cause you emotional distress OR if they engaged in conduct recklessly and with no regard for how it would affect their tenants
Alternatively, a tenant can sue for the negligent infliction of emotional distress. This occurs when a landlord’s negligence causes emotional distress to their tenant(s).
The courts will take into account the following factors on top of negligence and emotional damage caused:
- Physical damage - if the tenant suffered any physical harm on top of the emotional distress (this is not a requirement in all states)
- Foreseeability - if the landlord should have realized or predicted that their actions would result in emotional distress for their tenants
- Danger - if the tenant put their tenants in a dangerous position in which they were at serious risk of harm, making them anxious and fearful as a result
In some states, tenants are able to sue for emotional distress for any discomfort or stress caused as a result of inhabitable living conditions including unsafe materials used or poor plumbing etc.
It varies a lot depending on which state you live in so, we recommend checking with your state guidelines before making a claim.
Can you sue the police for emotional distress?
According to the Fourth Amendment, U.S. citizens can sue police if they cause emotional distress as a result of officers using excessive force.
Excessive force is described under the law, as ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ therefore a police officer’s use of excessive force must have been ‘reasonable’ in order to be within the suspect’s civil rights.
This could include making a victim feel extremely uncomfortable due to extreme harassment from a police officer or simply using brute force without a reasonable cause. False arrests are also a common cause of emotional distress caused by police.
In order to prove that a police officer has caused you emotional distress as a result of excessive force, you need to be able to prove the following:
- Their behavior/conduct was extreme/excessive - this will always be determined on a case by case basis but, the courts will judge whether a reasonable person in that position would be unable to withstand the actions without suffering from emotional distress as a result. Additionally, it will be considered if the officer could have known that their actions would result in emotional distress
- Their actions were deliberate and/or reckless - the officer intended to cause harm or displayed a complete disregard for possible emotional distress caused as a result of their actions
- The conduct resulted in severe emotional distress - the intensity and duration of the police officer’s actions will come into consideration, as well as whether a reasonable person would be susceptible to that level of emotional distress
Some states will require victims to have physical evidence in the form of external damage done to their bodies either as a result of the excessive force or physical harm done after the fact as a result of emotional distress.
Emotional distress is certainly something to be taken seriously. That being said, suing for emotional distress can be a long and often stressful process, so it is worth weighing up whether taking legal action will help or hinder your healing process.
The success of your claim will depend on several additional factors and extensive evidence, so make sure you check your state’s guidelines and consider consulting with the relevant lawyer before claiming.