Suing for Emotional Distress

When someone suffers physical injury as a result of another person’s carelessness or intentional conduct, it is common to sue them in court. However, some incidents can lead to mental suffering in addition to or instead of bodily harm or physical injuries. 

Can you sue someone for emotional distress? It can be harder to prove and quantify your damages, but suing for emotional distress is still possible. Emotional injury can severely impact the victim’s life, and courts take pain and suffering on an emotional level seriously.

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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 go about it.. 

What Is an Emotional Distress?

We have all experienced emotional distress at some time in our lives following tough situations and strained relationships. 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 sleeping too much, struggle to recall information, and isolate themselves from people or activities. The symptoms of emotional distress are 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 2022, the legal definition of emotional distress is any mental suffering, including all the symptoms mentioned above, caused by a particular event of negligence or intentional 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 with full legal implications. As such, it is possible to file a civil lawsuit on the grounds of emotional distress to receive financial compensation for the damage caused.

Types of Common Emotional Distress

When you’re asking yourself, “can I sue for emotional distress?” there are a few things to consider. The two main types of emotional distress are:

Intentional Infliction

In cases when the defendant’s deliberate actions are intended to cause mental suffering to the victim, the victim can file an intentional infliction claim. An example includes constant bullying and verbal attacks going beyond all possible bounds of decency. Emotional trauma caused by reckless behavior is also classified as intentional infliction.

Negligent Infliction

Conversely, the American legal system categorizes negligent infliction of emotional distress as an act of negligent infliction of mental suffering when the defendant unintentionally causes mental suffering as a result of an accident or carelessness. The family left behind in the wake of a drunken driving accident would suffer emotional distress as well as be able to file a civil lawsuit if a drunk driver killed a child.

Some cases may be appropriate for an intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuit. There are some personal injury cases (especially car accident cases) in which you can prove that either the defendant was “grossly” negligent or clearly intended to cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. Reasons to Sue for Emotional Distress

Can you sue someone for emotional damage? The main reason to sue for emotional distress is to gain economic 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 victim’s 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 hiring a therapist they need to help cope 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, sexual abuse, or real danger of being physically injured. However, in cases of sexual harassment or defamation, some courts have started recognizing emotional distress as compensable damages outright.

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:

Document your emotional state

To win the claim, the victim needs to prove the emotional damage as a consequence of another’s actions. As such, start by documenting how you feel each day and ensure your work, legal forms, and medical records reflect your current condition. This can help back up your case and make it easier to receive some form of compensation.

Contact an attorney

It is very beneficial for you to hire an attorney who specializes in U.S. civil law to help you navigate the complicated legal system. They will review your documents, ask questions about the incident, anticipate appeals, and draw up a case using the evidence you provide.

File an emotional distress lawsuit

Depending on the statute of limitation, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the defendant once your lawyer and associates have been brought up to speed.

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 attorney’s role to advise the victim whether or not to take a settlement payment or go to trial. This is often preferable since a trial can be a stressful experience and may worsen the victim’s mental health at this already unstable time. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a trial.

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 sometimes a jury, will decide the case’s 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, providing evidence to prove the plaintiff’s emotional trauma.

In addition to the proof of mental suffering itself, lawyers who do legal investigative work 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.

What Qualifies as Emotional Distress Evidence?

During the discovery phase, your mental anguish lawyer will gather evidence regarding the incident, including documents and reports, in order to build your case. 

You can also prove that you were in emotional distress if you can provide a copy of the psychiatric treatment bills. If you do not have psychiatric treatment bills, it is helpful to have an expert witness who will be willing to speak on the record, such as a therapist or doctor who diagnosed your mental illness. 

Your attorney will also suggest that you keep a journal of your daily activities and/or use a health tracker as a way to document how the incident has affected your daily life.

Is It Hard to Sue for Emotional Distress?

In order to determine whether or not you can pursue a claim for emotional distress, it may be necessary for you to consult an injury lawyer. An injury lawyer will gather the necessary information in order to determine whether or not you are eligible to file a claim for emotional distress. 

If a case is found to be viable, you can file it as soon as possible. If a jury awards you a verdict, or if the defendant and you reach an out-of-court settlement, you will receive compensation for your damages. Your lawyer will work with you throughout the civil litigation process.


Suing for pain and suffering emotional consequences of an event caused by negligence or intent is possible under U.S. law 2022. 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 step for anyone having suffered mental anguish caused by another person is to hire an expert legal professional to give them the best chance of winning. 

Article by Mariia Synytska

Mariia Synytska is Content Lead at Lawrina, a legal portal that projects innovation in law. Mariia manages the content on the website, takes interviews with lawyers and law experts, and looks for the interesting topics for Lawrina's audience. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Mariia for all the details via email

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