Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Overview

The tort  of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is defined as the plaintiff acting abominably or outrageously with the intention of causing the defendant to suffer severe emotional distress. This is typically done by a defendant vocally issuing the threat of future harm to a plaintiff.

Prima Facie Case

  1. The defendant acts
  2. The defendant's conduct is outrageous
  3. The defendant acts for the purpose of causing the victim emotional distress so severe that it could be expected to adversely affect mental health
  4. 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. 

Typically, a court will not assign IIED tort liability to a defendant who speaks harmfully about public figures

Further, as per Texas v. Johnson (1989), “[G]overnment may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” 

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 non-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

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.

 

 

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