Can You Sue a Company For Emotional Distress?


Emotional distress is defined as a state of mental suffering that is the result of an extreme situation. Common examples of mental suffering include depression, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, and anxiety. Successful emotional distress cases are typically filed by victims who have suffered extreme emotional suffering and/or trauma as a result of accidental or intentional injury.

When is an employer liable for the acts of its employees?

An employer is legally responsible for its employees’ actions if the conduct in question is within the normal scope of the employee’s job, or if the employer has consented to the activity. The legal process of discovering if an employer is liable for its employee’s actions is known as “ratification.” Every state has its own ratification laws, but generally speaking ratification will require proof of the following:

  1. The employer had actual knowledge of the activity
  2. The employer knew the activity was or could be harmful
  3. The employer failed to take the appropriate steps to rectify the problem

If you have suffered emotional distress due to workplace conditions or the actions of your coworkers, and if you have evidence to support ratification, you can file a personal injury claim against the offending party and the company to recoup damages. Most emotional distress lawsuits against employers also involve claims of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, so it’s a good idea to hire an attorney who specializes in employment law to handle your case.

Proving emotional distress

If your emotional distress was caused by an individual, the mindset of that person will be an important factor in your case. Did the offending party intentionally cause your emotional distress, or was it an accident? If it was an accident, was it an honest mistake or was it gross negligence? Determining someone’s state of mind is extremely difficult to do, but it will play a pivotal role in what qualifies as emotional distress and ultimately the success of your case. Negligent or accidentally-inflicted emotional distress will require different qualifying circumstances than intentionally-inflected emotional distress.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress

In cases of negligent infliction of emotional distress, the guiding principal is that the offending party had a legal responsibility to exercise reasonable care to avoid causing emotional distress to the victim. To be successful, cases of negligent infliction of emotional distress will need to prove the following:

  1. The offending party engaged in negligent activity or a willful violation of statutory duty
  2. The victim suffered extreme emotional distress
  3. The offending party’s negligent activity or willful violation of statutory duty directly caused the victim’s extreme emotional distress

Most negligence personal injury cases are brought about by the person who was directly harmed, but it’s not uncommon to see cases where the plaintiff was a witness to the negligent activity. In such cases the witnessing party may not have been personally injured by the incident, but the incident was traumatizing to watch and resulted in their extreme emotional distress. In order to qualify, the witnessing party needs to be within what’s called the “zone of danger.” A common example would be witnessing a fellow employee die or become seriously injured on the job due to the employer’s negligence or the negligence of another employee. If you were right next to the employee when they were injured or killed, you might have a case; if you were across the room and nowhere near the zone of danger, you may have a hard time proving your case to a judge.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress are often referred to as “torts of outrage” because they’re based on outrageous or extreme conduct that’s recklessly or intentionally performed. In most cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress, there are four requirements to prove the offending party’s guilt:

  1. The employer or employee acted recklessly or intentionally
  2. The employer or employee’s conduct was outrageous and extreme
  3. The employer or employee’s actions resulted in the victim’s mental distress
  4. The victim’s emotional distress is severe

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to prove claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress since there aren’t any clear guidelines on what constitutes outrageous and extreme behavior. The court’s interpretation will vary from case to case, though it’s safe to say that mere threats, indignities, insults, or annoyances aren’t enough.

The good news is that cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress don’t require the level of “extreme” emotional distress that’s necessary in cases of negligent infliction of emotional distress. If a normal, reasonable person would be unable to cope with the mental distress caused by the conduct in question, a victim’s embarrassment, fright, and shame would qualify as emotional distress.

Physical injury requirement

In many states, victims of emotional distress must have been physically harmed by the activity in question. If the victim wasn’t physically injured by the activity itself, the court may want to see evidence that the victim suffered some type of physical injury indicative of their emotional distress. For example, a victim whose anxiety or depression results in a miscarriage, hospitalization, or suicide attempt would likely qualify as being physically injured as a result of the activity in question.

Related employment laws

When it comes to suing a company for emotional distress, most cases are based on a breach of state or federal employment law. The emotional distress is often a result of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or workplace safety violations. There are two federal laws that establish the legal precedence for these types of lawsuits:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) – prohibits employers from discriminating against employers based on race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. The law also protects employees against employer retaliation for participating in protected activities.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) – guarantees that all employees have the right to operate in a safe workplace. Employers are required to provide a workplace free from health and safety hazards, especially when it comes to maintaining safe machinery and providing safety equipment.

Filing a federal complaint

Before you can file a civil suit against your employer for a breach of employment law, you’re required to file a complaint with the appropriate federal regulatory agency. If your case involves discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If your case involves workplace safety violations, you’ll need to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA).

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Employment law issues can cause extreme distress and can affect productivity on the job. If you are being harassed at work, or dealing with any other employment issue, consider talking to our AZ employment law team to help you settle your case.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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