Responsibility for Emotional Distress

Emotional Distress. Sometimes it is an element of damages, but it can also be an independent claim in personal injury and wrongful death cases. What does this mean to you or your claim?

Oklahoma has standard Uniform Jury Instructions that address the basics of emotional distress for a jury to understand their role in awarding damages for emotional distress or not. Though case law or other argument can trump the use of this language before juries, the Uniform Jury Instructions (referred to as “OUJI”) are designed to apply in many general contexts, subject to case specific revisions. For example, OUJI defines the term “emotional distress” as “mental distress, mental pain and suffering, or mental anguish.  It includes all highly unpleasant mental reactions, such as fright, horror, grief, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, and worry.” OUJI 20.3. Oklahoma Uniform Jury Instruction No. 20.1, sets forth the elements of liability which must be proven to recover. To assert an independent claim for emotional distress, a Plaintiff must show by the greater weight of evidence:

  1. Defendant’s actions in the setting in which they occurred were so extreme and outrageous as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and would be considered atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society; and
  2. Defendant intentionally or recklessly caused severe emotional distress to Plaintiff beyond that which a reasonable person could be expected to endure.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court first recognized the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress in a case called Breeden v. League Servs. Corp., 1978 OK 27. Many times, if a Jury Instruction is provided for emotional distress, one will also be provided for punitive damages, which are damages to punish a tort feasor who, even if he or she did not intentionally cause harm, was so reckless in his or her actions that he or she should have known harm was likely.

Intent is a key consideration in many legal causes of action and crimes. In many areas of law, as well as in life, the intent of another person should be examined. It is not just that another party desires to cause distress, but also if it was known “that such distress was substantially certain to result from [his/her/its] conduct.” See OUJI 20.2. Even if another party does not meet the direct intent criteria, intent may be predicated on recklessness. In the case of emotional distress claims it is recklessly caused when a Defendant “knew there was a substantial probability that emotional distress to Plaintiff would result from [his/her/its] conduct, and [he/she/it] deliberately disregarded that probability.” A deliberate disregard of a substantial probability of causing another distress is actionable in tort and can cause the imposition of damages for it as well as more damages to punish the wrong doer.

It is a difficult task sometimes to assess an actual monetary amount to emotional distress damages. An actual injury as a direct result of the claimed emotional distress must be found to have been sustained. OUJI 20.4. Whether the injury caused by the emotional distress was anticipated or not, Plaintiff is generally entitled to a dollar amount for, the following:

  1. Emotional distress;
  2. Any physical discomfort or inconveniences;
  3. Any physical illness or injury;
  4. Any reasonable medical expenses;
  5. Any loss of reputation;
  6. Any loss of earnings; and
  7. Any other items of compensable damage.

Physical manifestations of ailments from emotional distress are also considerations for a case. Physical manifestations may include anything believed caused by the emotional distress. Insomnia, fear, night mares, muscle spasms, and crying are some. Typically, a person will be asked if they received counseling or psychiatric care for their distress or if anything else was going on in their lives to cause distress as well. Plaintiffs with these causes of action should be prepared to address such issues. To discuss the legal effect and possible causes of action for any emotional distress inflicted on you intentionally or recklessly by another, please contact us.