intentional infliction of emotional distress

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Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is a tort that occurs when one acts in a manner that intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer severe emotional distress, such as issuing the threat of future harm.

Prima Facie Case

  • The defendant acts
  • The defendant's conduct is outrageous
  • The defendant acts purposely or recklessly, causing the victim emotional distress so severe that it could be expected to adversely affect mental health
  • The defendant's conduct causes such distress

First Amendment Limits on IIED Liability 

Certain intentional actions which may meet the prima facie case for an IIED (particularly as related to the outrageous conduct components) may not qualify for tort liability as an IIED, depending on the person at whom the conduct is directed or who commits the action, particularly as it regards to free speech.

Typically, a court will not assign IIED tort liability to a defendant based solely on them speaking negatively about someone, especially public figures. In order for speech to constitute IIED, the person must go further than simply criticizing someone; they must act outrageously.

  • For example, a jury may find IIED where someone repeatedly yells at an actor, saying the worst things about that person in front of an audience. 

Further, according to Texas v. Johnson (1989), IIED must not apply to something stated simply because the idea is a disliked or radical idea. Courts must strike a balance between allowing IIED claims and protecting First Amendment rights to free speech and thought. 

Possible Defenses 

If the plaintiff gives consent to the defendant to engage in the outrageous conduct, then courts will likely not consider the conduct to be outrageous, thus negating the prima facie claim. 

Further, context matters as well. If the conduct is done in a situation in which it may be deemed normal or appropriate, then the prima facie claim is likely negated. 

Jurisdictional Variety

Jurisdictions will differ in their definitions and applications of the common law tort of IIED, even though they generally follow the same requirements. Some jurisdictions will expand IIED liability by modifying the prima facie case. Rather than requiring that the defendant's action causes emotional distress in an intended plaintiff, some jurisdictions will allow that even if the defendant directs conduct at plaintiff A, but someone close to Plaintiff A (Plaintiff B) suffers severe emotional distress, then Plaintiff B is allowed to bring an IIED claim against the defendant.

Modern Trends for IIED Liability 

In Snyder v Phelps (2010), the Supreme Court signaled a move away from imposing IIED liability. The Court set aside the trial court's jury verdict that found IIED liability: "[Applying the IIED tort] would pose too great a danger that the jury would punish [the defendant] for its views on matters of public concern." 

For more on the impact of Snyder v. Phelps on IIED liability, see this Yale Law Journal note, this University of Missouri Law Review note, and this Northwestern University Law Review note.

[Last updated in December of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]