Can Emotional Distress Lead to a Lawsuit?

Our Delray Beach personal injury lawyers at the Law offices of Aronberg & Aronberg know that, often times, the worst sorts of pain can be below the surface and indiscernible — in particular, some of the most difficult types of hurting can come in the form of emotional distress. Generally, emotional distress, as an actionable tort, comes in two forms: negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As you might have guessed, the former results from the negligence of somebody else, while the latter results from the intentional acts of somebody else.

To be clear, emotional distress actions are very tricky and are often met with great skepticism by the courts. You might understand why courts are reluctant to deem worthy a cause of action rooted in emotional distress: what is to stop people from just claiming their feelings were hurt? Because the emotional distress torts are governed by the common law, courts have, over the years, ascribed a number of requirements to a successful emotional distress claim, often compelling that the victim, the plaintiff, demonstrate some physical manifestation of the emotional distress.

Let’s take a look at the elements of the claims. In the common law (as opposed to statutory law, which is promulgated by state legislatures), there are (it is widely agreed) four elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, which a plaintiff must prove in order to be successful:

  1. the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly;
  2. the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous;
  3. there is a causal connection between the conduct and the emotional distress; and
  4. the distress must be severe.

Some of these requirements may seem ambiguous. As with all of the elements, the allegations are judged on a case-by-case basis, with each state having different (common law) rationales for what they deem sufficient. For instance, the Florida Supreme Court addressed the “extreme and outrageous” conduct requirement in a case called Slocum v. Food Fair Stores of Florida (1958). There, as our Delray Beach personal injury lawyers now, the plaintiff had been told by a store employee, “you stink to me,” and alleged that, thereafter, as a result of the insult, she experienced a heart attack and exacerbated heart problems. The court held, despite the allegations of physical manifestation, that there was not enough to the insult to make it “extreme and outrageous.” The court reasoned that there had to be a line drawn somewhere between what was extreme and outrageous and what was not, and said that telling somebody that they “stink” does not qualify.

In Florida, as our Delray Beach personal injury lawyers know, there also four requirements to a successful claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress (where the victim, the plaintiff, has not been physically struck by the defendant), established by the Florida Supreme Court in a number of seminal cases:

  1. the plaintiff must suffer a physical injury;
  2. the physical injuries must have been caused by the psychological trauma (usually the witnessing of an accident in which someone was hurt);
  3. the plaintiff must be involved in some way in the event causing the negligent injury to another;
  4. the plaintiff must have a close personal relationship to the directly injured person.

These elements are somewhat flexible with respect to what qualifies under each of them. Determining what qualifies as a “physical injury” is difficult, as is establishing that a plaintiff had a “close personal relationship” with the directly-injured victim. Knowing how to put together a successful case is an art, one which is honed by years of experience in the area of tort law.

If you believe that you may have a case of emotional distress (either negligently or intentionally inflicted), or if you have any questions whatsoever about this or any other tort law topic, please contact our Delray Beach personal injury lawyers at or by calling us at 561-266-9191. We look forward to assisting you.


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