Can I File a Lawsuit for Emotional Damages in California If I Was Not Physically Injured?

Woman in car experiencing pain

You often hear the phrase “pain and suffering” or “emotional damages” when you hear of large lawsuits and settlements. Quite often, the types of cases involving these damages that make it on the news or on advertisements include large amounts of money, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions. Seeing as how all of us have experienced emotional pain and trauma from another’s actions from time to time, it’s easy to wonder exactly when one’s emotional pain results in a large settlement or verdict and when it’s just something you have to endure with no legal recourse.

In most cases, pain and suffering damages – which are intended to include compensation for both the physical pain a person endures as well as the ongoing emotional trauma and pain of dealing with injuries, physical pain, and loss of functions – accompanies a physical injury, such as would occur in a car accident or a violent assault. But, in some cases, it is possible to successfully win a lawsuit or settlement when there is no physical injury that has occurred.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

Intentional infliction of emotional distress, or “IIED,” is a claim in California that requires no showing of physical injury, but can instead be brought – as the name suggests – when a defendant has intentionally (or with reckless disregard) inflicted emotional distress on a plaintiff through outrageous conduct. To win an IIED claim, a plaintiff must show that:

  • A defendant acted in an outrageous manner
  • The defendant’s conduct was intentionally meant to cause the plaintiff emotional distress OR the defendant acted with reckless disregard of the fact that the conduct would cause the plaintiff emotional distress
  • The plaintiff did in fact suffer emotional distress such as fright, horror, grief, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, or worry, at a level no reasonable person should be expected to endure, and
  • The defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing that emotional distress

The types of conduct that could qualify as IIED are endless, but among them might be repeated threats toward a person or their family, playing a vicious practical joke on a person, causing a person to think they are going to be killed or family person has been killed, and other “outrageous” and unacceptable behavior causing severe emotional distress.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

In addition to IIED, California offers another emotional distress claim called negligent infliction of emotional distress, or “NIED.” Again, as the name suggests, one difference between NIED and IIED is that a defendant’s conduct need not be intentional but rather negligent, or, in other words, careless.

But there are also other differences, and there are actually two different types of NIED claims in California: 1) a direct claim, and 2) a bystander claim. A direct claim applies when negligent conduct is directed at a plaintiff, whereas a bystander claim applies when negligent conduct is directed at a third party, and the plaintiff is a “bystander” who is aware of the conduct.

Bringing an NIED Direct Claim in California

To bring a successful NIED direct claim in California, a plaintiff must show that: 1) a defendant was negligent; 2) the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress; and 3) the defendant’s negligent conduct was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s emotional distress.

While this sounds like it might cover a lot of situations, California courts have ruled that it only applies a limited number of situations, such as where there has been negligent mishandling of a family member’s corpse; there has been a negligent misdiagnosis of a serious disease such as HIV, AIDS, or cancer; or where there has been a serious breach of a preexisting duty such as a doctor-patient relationship.

Bringing an NIED Bystander Claim in California

To bring an NIED bystander claim in California, the plaintiff must show that he or she:

  • Witnessed injury or death to a person with whom the plaintiff had a close relationship
  • The injury or death was caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct, and
  • The plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress as a result

Events that might lead to an NIED bystander claim in California include seeing a family member being hit by a negligently driven car or be attacked by another person, and suffering severe emotional distress as a result.

Both NIED and IIED lawsuits are often complicated, fact-intensive actions, and you are advised to speak with an experienced California attorney to determine whether you may have a case and what your options may be.

Experienced Personal Injury Attorneys in the Inland Empire

At McCune Wright Arevalo, our personal injury team – led by partner Cory Weck, a Marine Corps officer with over 20 years of service to his country and 15 years of experience litigating personal injury cases. He has repeatedly won verdicts and settlements on behalf of clients across the Inland Empire in the millions of dollars. Our attorneys understand that the fear, anxiety, and pain that you and your family are going through following a personal injury, and we are dedicated to doing everything we can to help our clients get the help they need.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced personal injury attorneys in the Inland Empire.

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