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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

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Extreme and Outrageous Conduct:
Emotional distress must be caused by conduct that exceeds all bounds of decent behavior

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is defined as intentionally or recklessly causing another person severe emotional distress through extreme or outrageous acts. This can be a result of either the Defendant's acts or words. See Fletcher v. Western National Life Insurance Co., 10 Cal.App.3d 376 (1970).

The Defendant’s conduct must be “extreme and outrageous”. This is generally defined as conduct that exceeds all bounds of decent behavior. For example:

  1. D calls P several times in the middle of the night to bother him. This is actionable as an intentional infliction of emotional distress.
  2. D, a bill collector, verbally attacks P in order to get P to pay his bills. This is actionable as an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It is important to note that mere insults are not actionable. However, racial slurs and consistent verbal assaults that rise to the level of harassment may be actionable.

The extreme or outrageous conduct does not have to be specifically directed towards the Plaintiff. If the Plaintiff's family suffers emotional distress as a result of the Defendants action, they too can sue for emotional distress. See Grimsby v. Samson, 530 P.2d 291 (Wash. 1975).

The Defendant must intend to cause Plaintiff severe emotional distress in order to be liable. However, reckless behavior on the part of the Defendant is sufficient, if he acts in complete disregard of the likelihood that his actions will cause the Plaintiff emotional distress. See Sherman v. Field Clinic, 392 N.E.2d 154 (Ill. 1979).

Additionally, intent may be inferred if the Defendant knows that the Plaintiff has certain sensitivities and yet, disregards the likelihood that his actions will inflame these sensitivities. For example:

D knows that P has a morbid fear of snakes. As a joke, D puts a rubber snake in P’s bed. When P sees the snake, he becomes so frightened that he suffers a nervous breakdown. Here, P will have a cause of action because D knew of P’s fear and he acted in complete disregard of the likelihood that his actions would inflame P’s sensitivities.

The law has evolved regarding this requirement for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Early cases required that the Plaintiff’s emotional distress manifest itself in a “demonstrable physical injury” in order for liability to occur. However, the modern view allows recovery even if the Plaintiff’s severe emotional distress does not manifest itself in a demonstrable physical injury.

Whether or not the Defendant’s behavior is sufficiently “extreme and outrageous” is a highly subjective question that is determined on a case by case basis. See Hanke v. Global Van Lines, 533 F.2d 396 (8th Cir. 1976).

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