What kind of damages are emotional distress?

When physical injury as a result of negligence or intent occurs, it is common to go to court and sue. However, some incidents can lead to mental suffering, rather than bodily harm

What kind of damages are emotional distress?

When physical injury as a result of negligence or intent occurs, it is common to go to court and sue. However, some incidents can lead to mental suffering, rather than bodily harm or physical injuries. It can be harder to prove and quantify, but suing for emotional distress is still possible. It can severely impact the victims life, and courts take pain and suffering on an emotional level seriously.

Below, we answer all your questions about suing for mental stress and emotional damage. We start by defining what we mean by emotional distress, reasons to file an emotional distress lawsuit, and how to do this.

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What Is Emotional Distress?

We have all experienced emotional distress at some point in our lives following tough situations. It is a broad term that covers any mental pain, often linked with feelings of depression and anxiety. People suffering from emotional distress may feel overwhelmed and helpless, have difficulty sleeping or sleep too much, struggle to recall information, and isolate themselves from people or activities. However, the symptoms of emotional distress are extremely varied. In some people, it may manifest as a continuous state of depression and loneliness, while others may show emotional distress through sudden, angry outbursts.

Under U.S. law, the legal definition of emotional distress is any mental suffering, including all the symptoms mentioned above, caused by a particular event of negligence or intent to harm. Within the courts, you may also hear this referred to as mental anguish. Just as with physical injuries, the courts recognize this emotional pain as a form of damage. As such, it is possible to file a civil lawsuit on the grounds of emotional distress to receive compensation for the damage caused.

Reasons to Sue for Emotional Distress

The main reason to sue for emotional distress is to gain compensation for damages. Although this will not remove the mental suffering, it can bring some sense of justice and satisfaction to the victim that the defendant paid for what they did.

Additionally, depending on the level of emotional distress, the victims suffering may have prevented them from attending work while they recover. This can lead to a loss of income that can be compensated for. Moreover, the victim may be able to reclaim the cost of expensive medical bills or the cost of appointing a therapist they need to help deal with the incident.

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

Suing for mental stress is possible, but in most U.S. states, your emotional distress lawsuit will only succeed if the incident responsible for emotional damages also resulted in physical harm. This can either be direct physical harm to yourself or real danger of being physically injured. However, in cases of sexual harassment or defamation, some courts have started recognizing emotional distress as claimable damages outright.

If filing for emotional distress, there are two main types available:

  • Intentional Infliction: In cases when the defendants deliberate actions aimed to cause mental suffering to the victim, the victim can file an intentional infliction claim. An example includes constant bullying and verbal attacks within the workplace. Emotional trauma caused by reckless behavior is also classified as intentional infliction.
  • Negligent Infliction: On the other hand, if the defendant unintentionally caused mental suffering through an accident, the American legal system categorizes this as negligent infliction of emotional distress. For example, if a drunk driver killed a child, the family left behind would suffer from emotional distress and could file a civil lawsuit.

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How to Sue for Emotional Distress?

If you are suffering or have suffered from mental anguish as a direct consequence of negligence or intent to harm, you can sue for emotional distress. You can start taking legal action by following these steps:

  1. Document Your Emotional State: To win the claim, the victim needs to prove the emotional damage. As such, start by documenting how you feel each day and ensure your work and medical records reflect your current condition. This can help back up your case and make it easier to receive some form of compensation.
  2. Contact an Attorney: To help navigate the complex legal system, you need to appoint an attorney who specializes in U.S. civil law. They will look through your documents, ask questions about the incident, and start to build a case.
  3. File an Emotional Distress Lawsuit: Once your lawyer is up to speed, you can file the civil lawsuit against the defendant.
  4. Pre-Trial Preparations: During this stage of the case, the opposing lawyers will present all the documents and information from both the victim and the defendant. Based on this information, it is often possible to settle the suit and avoid going to trial. It is the attorneys role to advise the victim whether or not to take this settlement deal or go to trial. This is often preferable since a trial can be a stressful experience and may worsen the victims mental health at this already unstable time.
  5. Going to Trial: If the plaintiff decides to go to trial, the court will determine a date for a hearing. At the trial, both parties will present more information and offer witness testimonies to the courts. After both parties have argued their sides, the courts, or in some cases a jury, will decide the cases outcome.

It is important to know that suing for slander and emotional distress is notoriously difficult. It can be hard to prove damages that cannot be seen. It is much harder to prove post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another psychological condition than it is a concussion or a broken leg. Because of this, suing for emotional distress often requires a formal diagnosis from a doctor or mental health therapist. This person would then be the expert witness that stands before the court and offers testimony, acting as proof of emotional trauma.

In addition to the proof of mental suffering itself, lawyers working on emotional distress claims have to prove the incident in question caused the damage. The attorney must prove the incident happened either through intent or negligence, which acted as the sole and direct cause of all subsequent mental suffering.

There is also a fine line between what incidents can be used in a claim. To successfully sue, the incident has to be classed as outrageous conduct, meaning petty threats or small annoyances will not stand up in the court of law.


Suing for pain and suffering emotional consequences of an event caused by negligence or intent is possible under U.S. law. This covers all kinds of mental suffering, including anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, and humiliation. Unfortunately, the lack of hard physical evidence can make an emotional distress lawsuit very difficult to prove. Physical harm is often a necessity for any compensation for mental suffering, and a successful case needs well-documented evidence and strong witness testimonies. As such, the first point of call for anyone having faced mental anguish is to appoint an expert legal professional to give the best chance of winning.

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