Emotional Distress Damages in California—Can I File a Claim if I Wasn’t Physically Hurt?

Emotional distress damages california

Most personal injury lawsuits are for physical injuries, such as broken bones, brain injuries, burns, and spinal cord damage. These wounds not only cause physical pain, but they can also trigger additional emotional distress which also deserves compensation.

But what happens if you only experience emotional distress without an accompanying physical injury? In many states, you cannot sue unless you were somehow physically hurt or touched. This is called the “no contact” rule.

The law is different in our state. A person can bring a personal injury lawsuit for emotional distress damages in California without having suffered a physical injury. Read on for examples of these types of lawsuits.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

You can receive emotional distress damages in California by suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress, called IIED. With this claim, you sue because the defendant’s outrageous conduct injured you emotionally.

An IIED claim has the following elements:

  • The defendant’s conduct was outrageous.
  • The defendant intended to cause you emotional distress or the defendant acted with reckless disregard of the fact that his conduct would cause emotional distress.
  • The person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) did suffer emotional distress such as shock, horror, grief, shame, embarrassment, etc. to such an extent that no reasonable person should have to suffer.
  • The defendant’s conduct was at least a substantial factor in causing the emotional distress.

You must prove each element to receive emotional distress damages in California. These elements are like pieces of a puzzle, and if you are missing even one, then you don’t have a valid IIED claim.

Examples of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

There are countless examples of IIED, such as:

  • Threatening to harm someone or their family
  • Playing a hateful joke on someone
  • Pretending that someone’s family member has died
  • Posting sensitive information about someone online

One hurdle is proving that the conduct is sufficiently “outrageous” to qualify. You typically can’t bring an IIED claim for petty slurs or for jokes that merely make you uncomfortable. Instead, the defendant’s conduct needs to strike most people as truly shocking.

Also, a person who is particularly sensitive (the “eggshell” plaintiff) cannot sue unless a reasonable person would have felt intense emotional distress based on the defendant’s conduct. You might be mortified that someone made a joke at your expense during lunch at work, but you probably can’t sue if most people would consider the joke harmless.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

This is another situation where you can receive emotional distress damages in California without a physical injury. Negligent infliction of emotional distress, or NEID, is a lot like intentional infliction of emotional distress. They differ in the defendant’s mental state. With NEID, the defendant does not intentionally or recklessly mean to harm the plaintiff. However, the defendant still causes harm carelessly, or negligently.

There are two types of NIED claims: direct NIED and bystander NIED. You should understand the differences.

A Direct NEID Claim

This type of claim is pretty rare in California. It covers situations where:

  • The defendant’s conduct was negligent
  • The plaintiff experienced emotional distress
  • The defendant was a substantial factor in causing the distress

California courts have limited direct NIED claims to a handful of situations, such as a doctor giving a wrong diagnosis of HIV or another serious illness or a funeral home negligently handling a corpse. California courts sometimes expand the types of cases that qualify, so discuss your situation with a personal injury attorney.

A Bystander NEID Claim

You can receive emotional distress damages in California if you witnessed a loved one get injured. This is a bystander NEID claim, which requires that you show:

  • You saw someone you are close to get injured or killed
  • The defendant’s negligence caused the injury or death
  • You suffered severe emotional distress as a result of what you witnessed

A classic example is watching your loved one get backed over in a parking lot by a driver who does not use his mirrors or look over his shoulder. As with IIED and direct NEID claims, you must have suffered sufficiently severe emotional distress. Merely being upset for a couple of days probably does not qualify for compensation.

Strengthening Your Claim

Jurors tend to look skeptically at claims that a person has suffered severe emotional distress without any accompanying physical injury. If you were badly burned and claimed to suffer depression and anxiety, then jurors probably will readily believe you. But without any physical injury, some jurors might suspect that you are exaggerating or making up your emotional distress.

To strengthen your case, you need to carefully document the distress you feel. Some evidence that might prove helpful includes meeting with therapists or counselors, who can testify about the distress you feel. You can also keep track of the medication you are taking to treat depression, anxiety, or other related emotional distress.

The Only Personal Injury Attorneys to Call

If someone has intentionally or negligently caused you emotional distress, help is available. At Starpoint Law, we understand IIED and NEID claims inside and out, and we know how to build the strongest case possible.

Emotional distress damages in California are not easy to obtain, but you will improve your odds by hiring the right lawyer. For more information about how we can help, please contact our law firm today.

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