When one party does something so harmful to another that it causes severe emotional trauma and the act was intentional and reckless, the injured party may have a tort action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Many people have a fear of spiders, or arachnophobia. In fact, about 30% of people bug out when they see an eight-legged terrorist. Okay, placing a spider in the desk drawer of an arachnophobic may seem like a funny prank. But, if it causes the victim severe panic, you just may be liable for emotional distress. In fact, intentional infliction of emotional distress can be described as an intentional act performed by a defendant that is so reckless that it causes emotional distress to the victim. The court will look at a few things:
- The conduct of the defendant was outrageous.
- The conduct was reckless and intentional.
- A causal relationship must exist.
- Emotional stress resulted from the actions.
Perhaps a case analysis will help to map out the elements. In Rothwell v. Nine Mile Falls School District (2009), Rothwell served as a custodian for a local Washington state high school. When she arrived to work in April of 2009, the principal requested that she clean up the main entrance area. This would have been a routine job. Except on this day, a student had shot himself. What made matters worse: Rothwell knew the student personally.
For the sake of brevity, we will focus only on the arduous task at hand. Rothwell was summoned to clean up a crime scene to which she had a relationship with the victim. This task included cleaning blood, shattered bone fragments and brain matter. There were also things the emergency crew left behind, like needles and plastic gloves. Distraught over the suicide and the cleanup, Rothwell was sent home for a few hours. She returned to clean for several hours. She was told by her principal to make the area look as if nothing happened.
As the days pressed on, the community set up a makeshift memorial with candles and other things to commemorate the student's death. She was requested to remove and dump everything placed at the shrine each night. Over several days, Rothwell began to experience post-traumatic stress syndrome. This is generally severe stress caused by experiencing something terrifying.
Rothwell sued her employer in state court. The court applied the elements and decided that the principal's orders to clean up a suicide scene and dismantle a memorial were outrageous. Further, the acts were intentional and resulted in emotional distress. However, the emotional distress claim allowable by law also had specific criteria to which the case did not meet, like the timing of the claim and whether one single instance may have caused it.
We learned that while emotional distress may seem like a cut and dry claim, not all actions that cause stress are cause for tort litigation. There are necessary stressors that people must endure as part of their everyday lives, like being cut off on the freeway or losing a great parking spot to a driver with a keen eye.
Not Every Outrageous Act Qualifies
In Russo v. White (1991), Russo and White went on a date. After the first date, White began calling the plaintiff over and over again, sometimes several times in a row. Annoyed by White's behavior, she filed suit alleging that she suffered emotional distress over the calls. Although there was no presence of physical evidence, it annoyed her.
The courts looked at the elements. Yes, the relentless phone calls were intentional, and there was a causal relationship. As for the other two elements, they were not as easily proven. Russo could not produce enough evidence to prove that White's phone calls were so outrageous and stressing that it caused substantial injury. The most important thing to remember about this tort is the degree of emotional distress weighed against the extreme nature of the defendant's behavior.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress results from an intentional act performed by a defendant that is so reckless that it causes emotional distress to the victim. When courts decide on these cases, they look at whether the conduct of the defendant was outrageous, reckless and intentional. They also look at the relationship between the parties.
The most important element is the degree of emotional stress that resulted from the actions. Not every outrageous act warrants a trial. Some acts seem reckless, but are just part of everyday life, like speeders on the freeway or prank phone calls in the middle of the night.
After you've completed this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Describe the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress
- List the elements of this tort
- Summarize how the courts have viewed this tort through two cases: Rothwell v. Nine Mile Falls School District and Russo v. White
- Explain circumstances that would not warrant an intentional infliction of emotional distress trial