Suing For Emotional Distress

woman hunched over her knees crying to indicate emotional distress

Personal injury cases typically involve a combination of economic and non-economic damages. Non-economic damages relate to pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, and emotional distress. A bad accident with painful injuries often entails a certain amount of emotional distress. But what if there was no physical harm? Is suing for emotional distress on its own possible? The short answer is yes, but it can be complicated. Please read our blog to learn more about emotional distress lawsuits and what they involve.

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

The possibility of successfully suing for emotional distress without physical injury varies depending on jurisdiction and the circumstances surrounding the case.

Most states do not allow you to sue for emotional distress without the presence of one or more physical injuries. For example, if you developed PTSD following a car accident in which you suffered a traumatic brain injury, you have the right to pursue compensation for your physical and psychological injuries. However, if you developed a mental health condition in the absence of bodily injury, you generally cannot file a lawsuit.

As with any rule, however, there are exceptions:

You Develop Physical Symptoms Of Emotional Distress

If your emotional distress leads to physical symptoms, you may be able to pursue legal action. A tangible link to physical consequences gives firmer ground for a lawsuit, even if the physical injuries occurred after the psychological stress and not the other way around.

There are plenty of instances where emotional distress can manifest physically. For example, individuals with PTSD have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of stroke. Should you suddenly develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or another heart-related issue following your diagnosis of PTSD, you may consider suing for emotional distress. 

You Were A Bystander And/Or In The Zone Of Danger

The Bystander/Zone of Danger exception refers to scenarios where an individual witnesses a traumatic event or accident that places them in immediate peril, even if they are not directly involved. In such cases, courts may permit the bystander to sue for emotional distress, recognizing the psychological impact of witnessing the event firsthand.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

You may also be able to sue for emotional distress if you can prove that it was intentional. Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) occurs when someone purposefully engages in extreme or outrageous conduct that results in severe emotional distress to another person. To succeed in an IIED claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were intentional, reckless, and well beyond the limits of human decency.

Of course, the standards for “outrageous” or “extreme” behavior can be subjective, and most courts require the presence of egregious behavior supported by evidence and witness testimony. Examples of outrageous behaviors that may constitute IIED include:

  • Extreme hostility that is perpetrated by a co-worker or boss, such as through repeated racial slurs, bullying, or unwanted sexual advances. This hostility may be compounded by threats of physical violence or the implication that your job is in danger. 
  • A “prank” that is intended to incite crippling fear, such as tricking someone into an activity or environment where they must face a known phobia. 
  • Hazing, which is specifically meant to humiliate initiates and subject them to dangerous and strenuous tasks. This is why hazing is illegal in 44 states.  

Proving Emotional Distress

Again, suing for emotional distress can be difficult because this type of suffering may be subjective and not, necessarily, have a paper trail. That being said, it is not impossible to prove emotional distress following an injury-free accident or IIED. In both cases, proof will consist of a combination of the following:

Expert Witness Testimony: an expert witness, such as a medical professional, can offer their expertise in situations such as yours. They can give their informed opinion on whether or not your experience could cause emotional distress and to what extent.

Your Testimony: you may be asked to give direct testimony, informing a jury of your experience and offering personal evidence in the form of journal entries, texts, voicemails, etc. that demonstrate your deteriorating mental health over time. 

Other Witness Testimony: friends, coworkers, family, and others may be asked to corroborate your statements and add merit to your claims. They may note their perceptions of your mental state. For example, a supervisor may acknowledge that you began to miss a lot of work, which was unusual for you. A friend could observe how you were no longer interested in going out together, despite being very social previously. 

Medical Documentation: if you have been seeing healthcare professionals related to your emotional distress, they may be asked to offer their own opinions, medical notes, and prognoses related to your condition. 

Emotional Distress Cases Won

One of the most prominent emotional distress cases won in recent years was that of Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, a practicing physician in California. Dr. Fitzgibbons was the victim of purposeful and repeated intimidation tactics by the CEO of Integrated Healthcare Holdings Incorporated (IHHI). 

IHHI had acquired the hospital where Dr. Fitzgibbons previously served as chief of staff. Dr. Fitzgibbons was openly critical of this acquisition, which resulted in frightening retaliation tactics by IHHI’s CEO, Bruce Mogel. One instance involved Mogel planting a loaded gun in his vehicle and having Dr. Fitzgibbons arrested. Mogel also slashed one of the tires of Dr. Fitzgibbon’s daughter’s car, leading to a serious rollover accident

As a result of these mafia-esque tactics, Dr. Fitzgibbons developed PTSD, depression, and insomnia. A court found Mogel guilty of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and Fitzgibbons was awarded $5.7 million.

Suing For Emotional Distress in Colorado

Whether pursuing damages for emotional distress alone or in conjunction with physical harm, seeking legal guidance from experienced professionals is essential. In Colorado, the highly qualified attorneys at The Roth Group specialize in personal injury and are ready to assist you in building your case. Call or go online today to schedule a free consultation