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Suing for Emotional Distress at Work

Work can be stressful enough without your having to deal with the outrageous behavior of a co-worker. Despite repeated requests for help, your manager is not taking your complaints seriously. And now you’re having trouble sleeping, you feel anxious and are becoming depressed when you think about work. You start to wonder if you can sue your employer for emotional distress.

If you are experiencing emotional distress due to the negligent or outrageous intentional acts of another person, you may be able to bring a personal injury claim to recover damages. The law in this area is complex. Before you file a lawsuit, it’s important to understand the two forms of emotional distress recognized by the law.

Proving an Emotional Distress Claim

Emotional distress is either negligently or intentionally inflicted. The difference is based on the state of mind of the company or person responsible for performing the harmful act. Each form of emotional distress requires proof that certain acts did or did not occur. Here are the basics:

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

If you suffer from emotional distress that is caused by someone’s negligent conduct, you may be able to recover for NIED. Generally, a successful claim will prove the following elements:

  1. Defendant engaged in negligent conduct or a willful violation of a statutory duty
  2. Plaintiff suffered serious emotional distress, and;
  3. Defendant's negligent conduct or willful violation of statutory standards was a cause of the serious emotional distress.

 

The basic principal is that the accused had a legal duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing emotional distress to another individual. A claim for NIED can be brought by the person harmed by the negligent act, as well as certain bystanders witnessed the accident but were not physically harmed by it.

In the workplace, you could bring a claim for NIED if you were almost crushed by a poorly maintained piece of equipment, for example. However, your claim would most likely be unsuccessful if you witnessed a co-worker nearly being crushed, and you were not within the “zone of danger”. If you were not in harm’s way, the incident must involve a closely family relative.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

IIED is sometimes called the “tort of outrage” since it’s based on extreme or outrageous behavior that is intentionally or recklessly performed. Most courts require proof of four factual elements for an emotional distress claim to be successful:

  1. The employer or his agent acted intentionally or recklessly,
  2. The employer or agent's conduct was extreme and outrageous,
  3. The employer or agent's 's actions caused the employee mental distress
  4. The emotional distress was severe

 

It’s difficult to prove an IIED claim since there are no clear guidelines on what represents extreme and outrageous conduct. However, it must be more than mere insults, indignities, threats, or annoyances.” An example of behavior that did not meet the “outrageous” standard was an employer who circulated an old mug shot of an employee around the office to embarrass the employee.

Many unpleasant emotions, such as shame, fright, and embarrassment, qualify as emotional distress. The courts are not looking for an extreme response. It’s found where the circumstances would cause a reasonable person to be unable to cope with the mental distress.

Suing an Employer for the Acts of its Employees

An employer can be held legally responsible for an employee’s actions when the conduct that caused the emotional distress is within the scope of the employee’s job, or the employer consented to the conduct. As an example, scope of employment claims can occur when a store security staff wrongfully accuses a shopper of theft by name over a crowded store’s intercom.

Typically, employers are found liable for an employee’s actions through a process that is legally known as ratification. Although each state has its own law defining “ratification”, proof of the following facts is frequently required:

  1. The employer had actual knowledge of the specific conduct
  2. The employer knew the conduct was harmful
  3. The employer failed to take adequate steps to remedy the situation.

 

In workplace claims, emotional distress is often alleged along with other harmful conduct such as sexual harassment. For example, an employer can be held responsible for IIED after failing to respond to numerous complaints, over a period of months, that alleged sexual harassment by a manager.

Damages for Emotional Distress

How do you put a price on emotional distress? Generally, payment of damages for an IIED or NIED claim is proportional to the seriousness of the emotional injury. This is a decision for the jury if your claim goes to trial. Factors influencing damages include the outrageousness of the defendant’s behavior, the amount of harm you suffered, and whether the emotional distress is continuing.

Learn More About Emotional Distress Claims

Emotional distress is a very fact-intensive claim that is difficult to prove due to the lack of visible harm, such as a broken arm. But it’s a legitimate injury that can seriously disrupt your life. If you have suffered emotional distress, you may want to speak to an experienced personal injury attorney. A local attorney can help you better understand the law in your state regarding emotional distress at work.

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