Untangling Emotional Distress Claims

June 30, 2023 | - News & Insights

Most personal injury claims are based on allegations that the defendant’s conduct caused physical injuries to the plaintiff. While plaintiffs may be entitled to non-economic damages like pain and suffering and loss of consortium, those damages typically are tied to an underlying physical injury. That’s why many are surprised to learn that North Carolina law allows plaintiffs in some cases to recover damages for purely emotional injuries, which are known as “emotional distress” claims. While proving emotional distress claims is a high bar for plaintiffs, individuals involved in emotional distress litigation should mount the strongest defense possible with the help of a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney.  

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress 

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is an intentional tort claim (i.e., it is in the same category as claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment, trespass, etc.). It generally encompasses conduct where the perpetrator targets a specific person with an extreme and sustained campaign of harassment. Under North Carolina law, the plaintiff must prove three elements to maintain a cause of action for IIED: 

  1. Extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant 
  2. That is intended to cause and does cause…
  3. Severe emotional distress to the plaintiff 

“Extreme and outrageous” conduct is an inherently subjective concept, making it difficult to define. Various sources have defined it as conduct that “exceeds all bounds usually tolerated by decent society.” While this could mean different things to different people in different contexts, it requires conduct that is more than merely rude, insulting, harmful, offensive, or insensitive.  

“Severe” emotional distress is also a difficult concept to pin down. Ordinary offense, anger, anxiety, anguish, or embarrassment generally are not severe enough to support a claim of IIED. Rather, the emotional distress must be substantial and enduring and be of such a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. 

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress 

Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) is similar in concept to IIED, except that it does not require the defendant’s conduct to be intentional. Claims of NIED are based on negligent acts by the defendant that cause distress to plaintiffs similar to IIED claims. To state a claim for NIED under North Carolina law, the plaintiff must show that: 

  1. The defendant engaged in negligent conduct;
  2. It was reasonably foreseeable that such conduct would cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress; and
  3. The conduct did in fact cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress.

Negligence for the purposes of an NIED claim is ordinary negligence — i.e., the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty of care, the defendant’s conduct was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, and that the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s breach. However, for an NIED claim, the plaintiff must also show that severe emotional distress was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s negligence. For more information on defeating allegations of negligence, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney

Bystander Claims

North Carolina law also allows “bystander claims” for NIED, which arise where the plaintiff’s emotional distress is due to concern for another person. This could occur, for example, when the plaintiff witnesses a family member being severely injured due to the defendant’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle. The key issue with these types of claims is whether the plaintiff’s distress was a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s conduct. To determine reasonable foreseeability in this context, courts consider (1) the plaintiff’s proximity to the negligent act, (2) the relationship between the plaintiff and the other person whose welfare the plaintiff is concerned, and (3) whether the plaintiff personally observed the negligent act. 

Defenses to Emotional Distress Claims

The plaintiff’s burden of proof in both IIED and NIED claims is extraordinarily high. Not only must IIED plaintiffs prove that the defendant’s conduct was “extreme and outrageous,” but also that their emotional distress is “severe.” NIED plaintiffs must prevail on the normal elements of negligence first before establishing severe emotional distress. Defendants thus have several avenues through which to mount a defense to both types of claims, which a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can help you pursue.  

The Defendant’s Conduct Was Not Extreme and Outrageous

“Extreme and outrageous” conduct is not everyday conduct. Depending on the circumstances of the case, extreme and outrageous conduct could involve: 

  • The defendant abusing a position of power
  • The defendant exploiting a particular vulnerability of the plaintiff
  • A pattern of conduct that becomes intolerable when committed multiple times
  • Threatening violence or economic harm to a person or property in which the plaintiff has an interest (e.g., a family member or pet)

This kind of behavior is uncommon, and even when it occurs, courts do not necessarily consider it extreme and outrageous in all cases. 

The Plaintiff’s Distress Was Not Severe

“Severe” emotional distress must be more than temporary distress. In most cases, it requires that the plaintiff suffer a diagnosed mental disorder, such as neurosis, psychosis, chronic depression, or phobia. A plaintiff who cannot demonstrate a documented mental condition attributable to the defendant’s conduct will have an uphill climb in proving IIED or NIED. 

Lack of Foreseeability 

NIED claims require the plaintiff to show that a reasonable person would have foreseen that their actions would cause severe emotional distress to the plaintiff. That standard involves the plaintiff personally observing a negligent act that causes severe injury or death to a family member. While personal observation and a familial relationship are not strictly required, it can be very difficult to prove foreseeability outside of that narrow set of facts.

The Claim Is Work-Related

NIED claims by employees against employers are preempted by the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, which provides the exclusive remedy for most work-related injuries. However, IIED claims — which allege intentional conduct — are not preempted by workers’ compensation law. Employers may also be liable in IIED and NIED claims that allege sexual harassment or discrimination

Defeat Emotional Distress Claims With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney 

For more information about IIED and NIED claims and how to defeat them, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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