Emotional distress is a legal term many people know from daytime court shows and network dramas. It's a word that has become ingrained into our society, but at the same time how it works is very misunderstood. Especially when it comes to suing for it.
Turn on any episode of "Judge Judy" and you'll likely see litigants claiming emotional distress as part of their damages. It doesn't matter what their injuries are, they always request it.
But emotional distress damages are actually only awarded in very specific situations.
Emotional Distress: Physical or Mental Harm?
Typically, emotional distress is given when a person suffers physical or mental harm. The conduct leading to the emotional injury can be caused accidentally or intentionally.
In the case of physical harm, emotional distress is generally easier to win. That's because the law usually views emotional distress as accompanying most physical injuries. For instance, if someone punches you in the face and robs you, emotional distress can usually be given because of the trauma you endured.
On the other hand, when your harm is only emotional, recovery in such situations is much more difficult. Lawsuits under these circumstances are for "intentional infliction of emotional distress." The reason it's more difficult is because you have to prove the defendant's actions were both extreme and outrageous and caused you to suffer some sort of physical harm.
Extreme and outrageous conduct is anything that would be considered unacceptable civilized behavior. A typical example is someone threatening to kill you or your loved one.
Physical harm is actually the trickier part of the equation. That's because a successful emotional distress lawsuit requires plaintiffs to show that a defendant's conduct caused some sort of bodily injury to manifest.
For instance, let's say someone threatened to break all your bones and showed you the hammer they were going to use to do it. That's pretty extreme and outrageous behavior. But if you went about your day fine afterward, you probably wouldn't be able to get emotional distress damages.
But if that same action caused you so much stress that you miscarried your baby, then you probably would be able to recover for emotional distress. That's because in this situation, you actually suffered physical harm.
There are other ways to successfully sue for emotional distress. But it can get pretty complicated from a legal perspective. In those situations, sometimes talking to a lawyer is best.