Is Emotional Distress a Personal Injury in California?

Is Emotional Distress a Personal Injury in California?When you file a personal injury lawsuit in California, you may also seek compensation for emotional distress. However, not all cases involving emotional distress involve a physical injury. Today, we want to look more closely at what “emotional distress” entails, who can seek damages for it, and how these damages are calculated.

What is emotional distress?

In California, “emotional distress” is a category of compensatory damages. In other words, if you suffer a personal injury and it results in emotional or mental trauma, you may seek compensatory damages for that trauma.

Per the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”), emotional distress includes “suffering, anguish, fright, horror, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, and shame.” Serious emotional distress exists if an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to cope with it. This final part of the definition is critically important, because there are many factors that may affect how a jury reacts to this instruction, and how an attorney may present the case. Children, for example, may experience emotional distress in a much different way than adults.

Intentional inflection vs. negligent infliction of emotional distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a tort that may include the threat of physical harm or unwanted contact with the intent of provoking fear and other emotional upset in the victim. This type of claim is often included as part of a larger criminal or civil case, rather than the sole offense. For example, victims of sexual harassment often suffer emotional distress as a result of  their attacker’s actions, even if no physical assault took place. Victims of sexual abuse, assault, threats, stalking, or other acts of violence may also experience emotional distress.

Individuals who witness car accidents, shootings, or other traumatic events may have a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. This category may also include claims made by individuals who were bitten by a neighbor’s dog, who develop agoraphobia after a car accident, or are otherwise harmed by the negligent actions of someone else. This type of injury is still taken seriously, but it is considered to be the result of negligence, rather than the result of an intentional act.

How does emotional distress differ from pain and suffering?

Pain and suffering is generally defined as any “physical and mental discomfort you experience after you are harmed due to negligence or intentional wrongdoing.” In short, emotional distress is a type of pain and suffering. However, not all pain and suffering is emotional distress.

Can you recover damages for emotional distress?

Insurance companies and defense witnesses may attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy and severity of a plaintiff’s emotional distress. However, this type of emotional trauma can truly disrupt and derail the lives of any sufferers, no matter their age.

Even if a victim’s trauma following an incident is only mental and emotional, they can still seek compensation for damages. When pursuing this course of action, per CACI, the victim’s attorney will need to prove:

  1. That the defendant was negligent;
  2. That the plaintiff suffered serious emotional distress; and
  3. That the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s serious emotional distress.

The victim may then be entitled to compensation for lost wages, medical bills, or loss of society and companionship. A spouse may be entitled to make a claim for loss of consortium, if the trauma affected the marriage.

Can you seek punitive damages for emotional distress in California?

Yes, if you have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under California law, “where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

Of course, some exceptions may apply. For example, if your loved one is killed by a speeding car or drunk driver, you may still be awarded punitive damages even though the driver did not act with the intent  to hurt you or your loved one.

When emotional distress is unrelated to injury claims

Earlier, we discussed situations where an individual may suffer emotional distress in the absence of a physical injury. This often occurs when an individual witnesses a car accident or an act of violence, for example. However, you could also claim damages for emotional distress related to:

  • Cases involving bullying or harassment. For example, if your child is being bullied at school (or, in some cases, online), you could file a lawsuit against the school or the school district and claim these damages for your child. If you are a victim of bullying and harassment at work, you can also make a claim for these damages.
  • Whistleblowing. If you are a whistleblower, you are already under a tremendous amount of stress. Any emotional trauma you endure as a result of retaliatory actions against you may be grounds for damages.

The Los Angeles personal injury attorneys at McNicholas & McNicholas, LLP urge anyone with questions about recovering emotional distress damages to call as soon as possible to discuss their case. Our team has spent years helping victims in a wide range of scenarios obtain the justice and compensation they deserve. No case is too complicated or hopeless, and not having legal assistance on your side can only cause you further harm. Call or use our contact form to set up a remote consultation and begin the road to true financial recovery.

Please note that this blog is not to be construed as legal advice. Because every case is fact-specific, you should consult directly with an attorney to obtain legal advice specific to your situation.