What is Emotional Distress?

Felicia Dye

Emotional distress refers to mental anguish and suffering. According to tort law in the United States, such mental distress can be grounds to recover remedies when it is caused by certain actions inflicted by another individual, although such actions generally need to be intentional or negligent for damages to be awarded. There are many things that a person can experience that can be categorized as emotional distress, including fear, shock, and indignity.

Emotional distress is difficult to prove in court.
Emotional distress is difficult to prove in court.

Damages for this form of distress are often sought in cases where personal injury has occurred, so many people mistakenly believe that emotional damages will only be awarded in instances of physical harm. At one time, this was how the law generally worked, but in many US states, physical harm is no longer necessary to win such a case. In California, for example, damages may be recovered when there is extreme, outrageous, and intentional mental distress inflicted on another person, even when there is no physical harm done. Examples of instances where cases may be brought on these grounds include sexual harassment, false imprisonment, and stalking.

Feelings of mental anguish and suffering are referred to as emotional distress.
Feelings of mental anguish and suffering are referred to as emotional distress.

There are many instances in daily life where people do things to disrupt the peace of mind of other individuals, but this alone does not mean that a person has a viable claim for remedies. Case law has determined that judges commonly regard some degree of mental anguish as part of the normal interaction between members of society. For example, people commonly make threats or insult others and, although these actions are unpleasant, they are not always grounds for a lawsuit.

Emotional distress can cause tension and frustration in a person.
Emotional distress can cause tension and frustration in a person.

Generally, damages are only awarded in instances where the mental anguish is severe. Severity is often tested and considered based on several characteristics, including the intensity of the anguish or suffering and the amount of time for which it lasted. Claims may also be subjected to a "reasonable person" test, whereby it is considered how any reasonable person would have fared in the situation before the court.

A lawsuit might be filed by a parent on behalf of a child dealing with emotional distress.
A lawsuit might be filed by a parent on behalf of a child dealing with emotional distress.

Emotional distress can be very difficult to prove, which is one reason why most claims have been limited to incidents that also included physical harm. In these cases, it may be easier to convince a judge or jury that substantial mental inflictions also occurred. When there is no physical harm, the case often faces challenges similar to those that a criminal case would face when there is an absence of physical evidence. In some instances, it is necessary to rely upon the testimony of mental health experts.

In order to seek damages for emotional distress, an individual will need to hire an attorney.
In order to seek damages for emotional distress, an individual will need to hire an attorney.

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Discussion Comments


I dated a home health aid nurse. She tells me her ex-husband left her for a 24 year old woman, and three consecutive boyfriends have left her for some one else. She won't file for divorce because she wants her husband to, because it's not her idea. She thinks my job is a not a real job, and hates the company because her husband worked there.

She won't introduce me to her friends because I have Bipolar disorder and am on SSDI for a disability due to a brain injury. She'd rather be in good standing with her friends than treat me with respect as a person. She tells me she has a hard time going out with me because, and I quote, she says, " I treat people like you." Like me? What am I? What am I not? She dumped me and basically ripped my heart out and now what?

Why do normal people believe that normal is the rule and those of us who have challenges are not real people?


A man pursued me with promises of love, marriage, moving in with him and a life of happiness. He even gave me a ring last Christmas Eve. The next day he kicked me out of his home with nowhere to go and did not care. He worked on my emotional state daily. He called me names in front of his friends, did things his way. He threw me out, with promises of counseling, only for the entire nightmare start over.

In a covert way, he chipped away at my self-esteem until I tried to kill myself in his home two times in nine weeks. He thought I was rich. He broke my expensive belongings with not a shred of guilt. He would stab me in the back then deny it or try to make me crazy. He is a gaslighter.


Subway11-Stress anxiety and emotional distress cases are often found in sexual harassment and work related harassment.

The emotional distress claims like this usually get settled out of court because juries are very sympathetic to these types of cases.

The stress level is very high for someone suffering from sexual harassment because often the employee needs the job and fears being terminated by avoiding the advances of a supervisor.

The supervisor often becomes angry when the employee turns down the advances and thus creates stress anxiety for the employee.

If you are suffering from any form of harassment, the best thing to do is to keep a detailed log of events so later on you can speak with Human Resources and if that does not help you can seek emotional distress lawyers that specialize in employment law.


Sneakers41-Product liability cases like the Mc Donald’s coffee spill have caused many companies like Mc Donald’s to alter their business practices in order to limit future emotional distress claims.

This case involved a clerk that gave a cup of coffee to a customer at a drive through window and that coffee spilled on the customer’s lap and scolded her. The customer was awarded several million dollars for this incident.


Tort emotional distress is really called strict liability. Strict liability is often applied in manufacturer defects and product liability cases.

In these cases because of the defective items, the consumer is awarded punitive damages due to emotional distress. An example would be in a case of a faulty crib in which a child was injury or killed because of the defect.

The jury awards the punitive damages in order to compensate the victim’s family for pain and suffering. If the product resulted in an injury to the child, then the child’s family would also be award compensatory damages which cover medical expenses of the child.

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