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Washington, D.C. Personal Injury Blog

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Can you be sued for hurting someone's... feelings?

In a civilized society, citizens are expected to conduct themselves with at least a small amount of regard for the feelings of others.  To prevent behavior that can cause severe anguish, the law has created a tort called “intentional infliction of emotional distress”. An intentional infliction of emotional distress claim allows those who are emotionally injured by another person to recover for emotional injuries as well as any physical injuries that result from distress induced by the bad behavior, such as migraines, ulcers or a miscarriage. 

In order to prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, four elements must be shown. First, the defendant must act either intentionally or recklessly. The defendant’s conduct must be extreme and outrageous. Third, the plaintiff must have suffered extreme emotional distress.  And lastly, the plaintiff’s conduct must be the cause of that distress. In addition, some states require that the incident that caused the emotional distress must have taken place in public. 

Some examples of behavior that may constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress include a person telling a parent their child has died, while knowing it wasn’t true; a medical professional telling a patient he or she is HIV positive as a joke; or a person threatening to shoot another person if he or she does not meet certain demands. Some behavior that may seem like intentional infliction of emotional distress but probably is not would include a person having an affair with a friend’s spouse; a landlord evicting a dying person who hasn’t paid rent for a few months; or an action that was intended as a harmless prank, such as toilet papering someone’s house. 

When determining whether intentional infliction of emotional distress has occurred, a judge or jury must take into account the emotional state of the victim and whether the plaintiff knew of that emotional state. For example, a person locking another person who is scared of roaches in a closet filled with roaches could be intentional infliction of emotional distress in that instance, while it may not be to a person who isn’t afraid of roaches. 

Intentional infliction of emotional distress can be hard to prove. The hardest element to show is that the defendant’s conduct was so extreme or outrageous to be completely intolerable in a normal society. It is not enough for the defendant to simply have behaved badly or even very badly – the behavior must be atrocious and harmful to one’s mental health. 


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Richard F. Silber is admitted to practice in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. From his office in Georgetown, he and his legal team assist clients throughout the Washington metropolitan area.



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