What is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress is one of the hardest things to quantify—and one of the hardest things to prove—in order to win damages in a civil suit. But feelings of emotional distress are very real and can affect the victim’s day-to-day life in a major way.

Emotional distress includes mental distress, mental suffering, and mental anguish. It encompasses all major mental reactions, including fright, nervousness, worry, anxiety, grief, shock, indignity, humiliation, and mortification. The U.S. Supreme Court has described emotional distress as “mental or emotional harm, such as fright or anxiety, not directly brought about by physical injury, but that may manifest itself in physical symptoms.”

Infliction of emotional distress can come in two major forms: negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress means that someone’s conduct placed the victim in reasonable fear of immediate personal injury, which caused emotional distress, which manifested in some physical way.

Claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress generally require four elements:

  • Duty: The definition of “duty” varies from place to place; it can be a general duty not to create a foreseeable risk of emotional harm, or the duty can be to a “foreseeable” victim.
  • Breach: With your jurisdiction’s definition of “duty” in mind, the defendant must have breached that duty. The defendant must have created the threat of physical impact or harm, or he or she must have acted in a way that caused severe emotional distress.
  • Damages: The claimant must have suffered damages and serious emotional distress as a result of the defendant’s actions.
  • Causation: The defendant’s actions must have been the direct cause of the emotional distress in question.

In the state of New Jersey, the claimant does not necessarily have to be the one in danger of physical harm. Bystanders of traumatic events (i.e. car accidents, assault) can claim negligent infliction of emotional harm if these four elements are true:

  1. The death or serious physical injury of another was caused by the defendant’s negligence
  2. A marital or intimate family relationship existed between the plaintiff (a.k.a. the bystander) and the injured person
  3. There was an observation of death or serious physical injury by the bystander who witnessed the death or physical injury at the scene of the accident
  4. The observation resulted in severe emotional distress

The “marital or intimate family relationship” element has been broadened to include more than blood relatives or married couples; an engaged couple living together can qualify for the “marital or intimate family relationship,” among other couples.

Many jurisdictions require that a bystander for a traumatic event be within the “zone of danger.” That is, the bystander must be close enough to the accident or event to be at a risk for physical impact and fear for his or her safety.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is slightly different from negligent infliction. In a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the claimant must prove that the defendant intended to injure or cause harm.

Claims of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress can be very difficult to prove and litigate. Contact Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi if you have questions about your particular case and whether or not you can claim negligent infliction of emotional distress.