Emotional distress can wreak havoc with your life, sapping your energy, ruining relationships, and sometimes leading to suicide or substance abuse. One can expect any crisis to cause a certain amount of stress. But with emotional distress, the impact is often severe and debilitating, making it difficult to carry on a normal life at work or at home.
These warning signs of serious emotional distress —everything from eating and sleeping disorders to depression and anxiety—are not visibly apparent. They do not show up on an x-ray like a broken bone; and their invisible nature means others may not realize the extent of one’s suffering. But that doesn’t leave victims without legal recourse.
You can sue for emotional distress and win.
After all, severe emotional distress can throw one’s life off course in different ways but just as severely as a physical injury. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, symptoms of emotional duress may last for weeks or months. Worse, even if they subside or disappear, these symptoms can resurface when triggered by an associated event. This syndrome happens often, most seriously in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Real Examples of Successful Emotional Distress Lawsuits
A Florida couple who experienced a nightmare voyage when COVID-19 broke out onboard the Grand Princess cruise line in March, 2020 was the first to test the legal waters over their coronavirus ordeal at sea by filing a lawsuit for more than $1 million for trauma and emotional distress damages.
Other cruise-line passengers are seeking similar relief, shining the media spotlight on emotional distress claims and the issues of immunity and dollar limits that sometimes arise. One big question is whether these legal cases will be limited to physical injuries and hindered by centuries-old laws governing the high seas.
Caps or limits on dollar awards for mental anguish are nothing new. The conflict between business and insurance interests and the interest of the harmed is particularly acute in this area of the law. 30-40 years ago decisions regarding damages caused a serious re-examination of awards for harm. Most famously, an Albuquerque, New Mexico McDonald’s hot coffee case, in which a jury awarded a 79-year-old woman nearly $3 million in punitive damages for “dangerously” hot java, caused a re-examination of these awards. Concerns grew about exorbitant medical malpractice suits.
But the case of an Oklahoma oil rig worker who lost his arm in a 2012 construction accident and was initially awarded $14 million, including $5 million for mental anguish and pain and suffering, added to the call for limits on awards for severe emotional stress. Although the court reduced the jury’s emotional distress award to $350,000, due to Oklahoma limits on such claims, the state’s Supreme Court on appeal decided the cap was unconstitutional and reversed the trial court’s decision.
There’s good reason to revisit such laws, says the American Psychological Association, citing research that shows emotional distress is as devastating as physical ailments.
Fortunately for New York residents who have suffered emotional abuse, the state has not placed a limit on dollar awards for damages. This means those who live with the effects of emotional pain can be fully compensated for their struggle.
Suing for Different Types of Emotional Distress
The law addresses emotional distress when it is inflicted by another individual either negligently or intentionally. It may be hard to prove someone else is to blame for your mental or emotional trauma, but if a claim is successful, the cash rewards can be substantial. Take the case of comedian and writer Dean Obeidallah who won $4.1 million in 2019 after suing The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, for emotional distress and libel. The Stormer’s false claims that Obeidallah had masterminded the May 2017 bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, led to death threats, leaving him in fear for his life, and his friends’ lives.
At one time, victims of emotional distress had to show physical harm and symptoms mentioned at the onset of their trauma to win a lawsuit. Today that has changed, and courts are more willing to award monetary damages for emotional distress even when there is no physical injury. Common examples include sexual harassment and defamation claims; they can be extremely damaging yet not involve physical contact. In cases like these, it may take the testimony of a therapist or psychiatrist to substantiate claims.
Emotional Distress from Intentional Harm
When emotional or mental trauma is the result of someone intentionally or recklessly inflicting harm, there are specific legal criteria for court action. Not only must the defendant have acted intentionally or recklessly, but their conduct must rise to the level of “extreme and outrageous.” Also, their actions must clearly be the cause of the distress.
Psychology Today points out that people hurt each other’s feelings all the time, so the courts won’t consider simply a case of rude, annoying, or insulting behavior. A defendant’s actions must be “so heinous and beyond the standards of civilized decency that it is utterly intolerable in a civilized society.” In one successful suit, a cruise ship passenger was humiliated to the point where she refused to leave her cabin after a gorilla’s head was photoshopped on her photo and widely circulated. In another suit won by the plaintiff, a man’s doctor lashed out at his wife in the hospital room, using expletives—this behavior caused the man to shake uncontrollably and required psychiatric treatment.
Another emotional distress example is a woman sexually harassed on the job and under so much stress from her boss’ regular advances and threats to spread rumors that she got an ulcer and lost excessive weight. While bodily harm is not required to pursue such a case, when the defendant’s behavior has physical consequences, as it did with this woman’s ulcer, it becomes part of the legal action.
Emotional Trauma from Negligence
Sometimes emotional trauma is the result of negligence, perhaps involving a doctor or other professional. In such cases, the courts often want to see that the negligence caused some physical harm, although this rule is not cast in stone.
An example of negligence might involve someone diagnosed with an aggressive form of inoperable cancer, who quits their job and makes other end-of-life decisions, including not to follow with medications needed for diabetes and a heart condition. When the man learned that his doctor confused his file with someone else’s, he had already suffered a minor stroke. Such negligence is clearly grounds for legal action.
Who Can Be Sued for Emotional Distress?
Your extreme emotional distress could stem from the actions of a spouse or ex-spouse, landlord, employer, medical professional, school or university, bank, or government. While most are not exempt from lawsuits, generally, it’s easier to sue individuals for emotional distress than a larger entity that may be endowed with certain legal protections.
Battling with the federal, state, or municipal government, for instance, can be just that—a battle. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows certain kinds of litigation against federal workers who are acting within the scope of their job. But suing for severe emotional distress can be particularly tricky when the federal government is involved. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that a pilot could not collect damages from the Federal Aviation Administration for alleged violations of the federal Privacy Act that led to disclosure of his HIV status.
When it comes to suing the state, New York is like many others that have that recognize and admit liability and permit legal action against the state. The New York Court of Claims Act, Article II, Section 8, opens the door to legal action against the state for nearly any type of negligence, from car accidents to medical care. The time limit to file is 90 days from the time of injury.
If a municipality is the source of your emotional distress, that may be a difficult fight indeed. Towns can be sued but they are under a substantial umbrella of protection which means the injured person must show the municipality had a special duty toward them that was treated negligently.
Suing a bank over the handling of a mortgage or due to another source of anguish is problematic. Often cases against a bank simply go to arbitration, due again to certain protections these institutions are granted.
If you’d like to sue a college or university, a wave of lawsuits relating to COVID-19 and tuition paid for online classes shows that they can be taken to court, but again it’s likely to be a rocky road for an inherently difficult emotional distress claim.
A plaintiff’s chances in court are substantially better in an emotional distress claim against individuals, including a spouse or former spouse, doctor, landlord, or employer. When suing for emotional abuse at work, your employer (under certain conditions) may be held liable for the outrageous actions of employees, as well as their own.
How to File a Lawsuit for Emotional and/or Mental Trauma
Legal action for mental anguish is not a matter for small claims court. Emotional distress damages are decided in civil court after the filing of a personal injury case. The statute of limitations to file a claim ranges from one to six years in most states.
Since emotional distress is often a challenging case to prove, it is critical that a plaintiff document their condition, including any related visits to therapists, psychologists, and medical professionals. A personal injury attorney can help determine whether suffering is the result of an intentional act or whether it’s a case of negligence.