Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In general, North Carolina recognizes personal injury actions for both negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). The burden of proving either of these claims is a high one; it can be difficult to prove requisite emotional damage to succeed on either claim. However, of the two, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is by far the most difficult to prove as it requires a showing of purposeful or calculated behavior by the defendant. This article will examine some common examples of IIED and its elements.

What Types of Cases Involve IIED Claims?

Claims for intentionally emotional distress can arise out of numerous different contexts, including:

  • Sexual or gender-based harassment
  • Racial hostility/harassment
  • Harassment based on another protected category such as disability, national origin, color, religion, or age

Often such claims will come into play in an employment context. North Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws bar employees from suing their employers for negligent behavior. However, claims against an employer for intentional personal injury are allowed. In this context, IIED claims often accompany claims of hostile work environment, another personal injury action.

North Carolina is one of a very small minority of states that still allow what are called “heart balm” lawsuits in the marital context. It allows a spouse to sue a third party with whom their spouse cheated for “alienation of affection.” In other states without heart balm torts, individuals will sometimes bring IIED claims against the third party in this context. However, courts are typically hesitant to award damages for IIED in this context.

Elements of an IIED Claim

The bar for proving Intentional IED is even higher than that of Negligent IED as it involves purposeful behavior intended to harm another. Elements are the components that make up a cause of action, and the plaintiff must be able to prove each of them to the court. The elements of NIED are as follows:

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

What qualifies as extreme and outrageous conduct to meet the first element can be a high bar. Extreme and outrageous behavior must generally be so egregious that it is outside the bounds of what any reasonable person would do, and would emotionally damage an ordinary person. Lewd or offensive comments, for example, will not normally rise to this level without some sort of aggravating factor. If, however, the plaintiff had a preexisting mental or emotional condition that made them particularly susceptible to injury, the defendant can also be held liable for any triggering or aggravation of the condition.

As to intent, it can be enough that the defendant behaved with a reckless disregard for their actions, even if there is no evidence that they intended to cause severe emotional distress. Reckless behavior is that which displays a deliberate disregard to a high probability that emotional distress would result.

What constitutes severe emotional distress is a high standard under the law. Often referred to as mental anguish, it typically requires a generally professionally recognized and diagnosed emotional or mental disorder, such as chronic depression, phobia, neurosis or psychosis. Besides being diagnosable, the mental problem must also be severe and disabling for the plaintiff. Our courts have held that mere disappointment, temporary fright or regret does not usually rise to the level of severe emotional distress.

What is NOT Required in an IIED Claim?

Physical injury is not usually required for an IIED claim, but if the elements of IIED are met, the defendant will also generally be liable for any accompanying resulting physical injuries.

Note that IIED does not require foreseeability like an NIED claim. This is because the conduct in an IIED case by nature is intended to cause injury.

If you or someone you love has been injured by another person’s intentional or reckless behavior, it is important to speak to a dedicated and experienced personal injury attorney. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is an aggressive civil and criminal litigation firm with offices in Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe North Carolina. Our personal injury attorneys stand at the ready to use a case-specific and caring methodology to fight for your recovery rights. They can also advise you of whether or not you have a claim that is likely to succeed. Contact our office today for an initial consultation with one of our attorneys to being this process.

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