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Suing for Emotional Distress: "Outrageous!"

Can you sue someone for hurting your feelings?

Can you really sue someone for hurting your feelings? The answer is yes. But only if he or she did something outrageous.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), also known as intentional infliction of mental distress or the tort of “outrage,” is a tort claim for intentional conduct that results in extreme emotional distress.[1] The elements are:

(1) The defendant acted intentionally or recklessly;
(2) The defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; and
(3) The defendant’s act is the cause of distress; and
(4) The plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of defendant’s conduct.[2]

People hurt each other’s feelings all the time. As such, courts have held that an IIED claim must be based on more than bad conduct. Liability does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, or petty oppressions.[3] Instead, the conduct must be so heinous and beyond the standards of civilized decency that it is utterly intolerable in a civilized society.[4] The legal classic formulation of the standard is whether the conduct would cause a reasonable person to explain, “Outrageous!”[5]

Examples of Unsuccessful IIED Cases

Example #1: The Rude Doctor

A doctor approached a patient right before her surgery (which was to be performed by another doctor in the same hospital) and told her, “I don’t like you.” The court held that the patient could not sue the doctor for IIED because it was a petty insult and not outrageous.[6]

Example #2: The Vindictive Boss

An employer was displeased with employee’s work, and began circulating an old mug shot of the employee around the office. The employer then hired a private investigator to place the employee under surveillance. Coincidentally, the investigator discovered that the employee was cheating on his wife, took photos, and sent them to his wife. The employee's wife subsequently divorced him. The employee sued the employer for IIED. The court held that the employee could not sue the employer for IIED because the conduct did not rise to the level of “outrageous.” [7]

Examples of Successful IIED Cases

Example #1: The Nightmare Cruise

A woman went on a cruise, where the cruise photographer took a photo of her even after she told him not to. The cruise photographer then photoshopped a gorilla head onto her photo, where it was displayed in a gallery with other passengers. For the duration of the cruise, the crew harassed her, even using a gorilla suit and making lewd comments to her, causing her to stay in her cabin. The court held that the woman could sue for IIED because she had “good reason to be emotionally perturbed, humiliated, and embarrassed” by the conduct.[8]

Example #2:The Doctor From Hell

A patient was in the hospital receiving care from a doctor. The doctor does not visit for days, so the patient called his office to complain. Afterwards, while the patient's wife was visiting, the doctor stormed into the patient's hospital room and screamed: "Let me tell you one [expletive] thing, don't nobody call over to my office raising hell with my secretary. ... I don't have to be in here every [expletive] day checking on you because I check with physical therapy. ... I don't have to be your [expletive] doctor." The patient’s wife interjected by telling the doctor that he would not be the patient's doctor for much longer, and the doctor snapped in reply: "If your smart [expletive] wife would keep her mouth shut, things wouldn't be so bad." The wife began crying, and the patient began suffering from uncontrollable shakes, which eventually led to the need for psychiatric treatment. The court held that patient could sue for IIED.[9]

Whether the facts of a situation present a compelling action for IIED depend on the particular situation; the inquiry is very case-specific. If you think that you may have an IIED claim that you want to pursue, consider seeking the advice of a local attorney or mental health professional.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this blog or any of the email links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.


[1] Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress ("NIED") is the other prominent cause of action based on emotional harm.

[2]DAN B. DOBBS, THE LAW OF TORTS § 303, at 826 (2000).

[3] RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 46 cmt. d. (1965).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.; Prosser, Law of Torts (2d ed. 1955) at pp. 46-47.

[6] Roberts v. Saylor, 637 P.2d 1175 (Kan. 1981).

[7] Pemberton v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 502 A.2d 1101 (Md. App. 1986).

[8] Muratore v. M/S Scotia Prince, 845 F.2d 347 (D. Me. 1987).

[9] Greer v Medders, 336 S.E.2d 329 (Ga. App. 1985).

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