Yes, you can sue someone for causing mental harm which is classified as Emotional Distress or “Mental Anguish.” However, the process can be challenging and is dependent on many factors. If this is a matter of  the plaintiff's neighbor stressing them out, then there is most likely no case there. The plaintiff needs to make sure they actually have a solid case before consulting a lawyer.

What is Emotional Distress?

Emotional Distress or “Mental Anguish” is a non-physical, psychological injury that can be utilized in civil lawsuits. It is the legal theory upon which you can sue someone for damages for causing you paranoia and anxiety. Emotional distress may be exhibited by feelings of humiliation/shame, insomnia, depression, self-destructive thoughts, anxiety, stress, or another emotional response resulting from a traumatic event. Most emotional distress cases occur due to battery, assault and medical malpractice.

Emotional distress cases also occur when the person suing was not directly affected by the defendant. i.e. the defendant killed the plaintiff’s family member in a car accident. However, this is a challenging task and damages are only awarded under specific circumstances. Something to remember is that physical injuries are easier to recover damages for because the physical pain is often evident and obvious. With mental and emotional distress, it can be challenging to get a judge and jury to:

  1. Believe you, and
  2. Understand the relevance / cost of damages to apply to emotional distress.

Ask Yourself a Few Questions Before You Pursue a Lawsuit for Emotional Distress

  1. What is the statute of limitations on my case?
  2. Has the emotional distress manifested as physical issues such as migraines, ulcers, or other physical pain?
  3. Medical Records? It will help your case greatly if you have documents from your doctor outlining any psychological effects that you may have endured due to the emotional distress.
  4. Was the emotional distress caused intentionally or negligently? However, to obtain damages for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress, you would usually have needed to suffer physical injury as well.
  5. How much is your case worth? Think about whether your case is worth the time and effort. Is there a potential for a big payout?

In Virginia, your emotional distress case must be accompanied by physical injury, reckless and intentional conduct in order to seek damages in return.

Intentional or Negligent Infliction of Emotional Damages:

  • Intentional: When a defendant’s actions are intentional or reckless. The defendant had the intent to emotionally harm the plaintiff, often done through threatening violence.
  • Negligent: When a defendant’s actions were accidental or unintentional. The defendant acted carelessly and doing so caused emotional harm to the plaintiff.

Calculating Monetary Damages

Most damages awarded for emotional distress are considered non-economic damages, but it is possible to obtain economic damages as well.. Economic damages would be given out for out-of-pocket losses by the family as a result of the lawsuit, i.e. medical expenses, lost wages, etc.

It is important to note that the defendant cannot bring up any underlying mental health history belonging to the plaintiff. This means that the defendant cannot ask the plaintiff to take a mental health exam. The only way they can use a mental health claim is if the plaintiff has already brought it up.

You should decide whether disclosing any prior mental health documentation will help or hurt your case.

Should I Hire a Lawyer?

Yes. If you are planning on filing a lawsuit for emotional distress, it is in your best interest to seek the counsel of an experienced lawyer. However, make sure that your case is worth pursuing. Most lawyers will not take this type of case unless there is a clear opportunity to win the case. Emotional distress cases can become complex and challenging very quickly, so ensure that you have enough evidence to move forward in the case.

Brian Glass
Virginia personal injury lawyer selected to SuperLawyers Rising Stars List and the NTLA's Top 40 Under 40.