Civil Money Damages Liability For Intentional Infliction Of Emotional Distress

Emotional distress damages are usually not available unless the plaintiff has also suffered physical injuries.  The Iowa Supreme Court has been careful to restrict the types of cases in which emotional distress damages can be recovered even without physical injury.  Once such claim is “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  Under that theory, a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress regardless of whether a physical injury has also been suffered.

These claims are difficult to prove.  To be liable for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must prove (1) outrageous conduct by the defendant; (2) the defendant’s intentional causing, or reckless disregard of the probability of causing emotional distress; (3) the plaintiff’s suffering from severe or extreme emotional distress; and (4) that the defendant’s outrageous conduct was the  cause of the emotional distress.  Iowa’s courts differentiate between “mere bad conduct” and “outrageousness.”

To satisfy the requirement that a defendant’s conduct be extremely egregious, mere insult, bad manners, or hurt feelings are insufficient.  Liability has been found only when the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. Generally, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress only exists when the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse that person’s resentment against the defendant.

Liability under this theory can only be imposed for intentional or reckless behavior.  A person intends to inflict emotional distress when they want to cause distress, or know such distress is substantially certain to result from their conduct.  A person’s conduct is reckless if they know or have reason to know their conduct creates a high degree of probability that emotional distress will result and they act with deliberate disregard of that probability.

To establish “severe or extreme” emotional distress, a plaintiff must offer substantial evidence of emotional harm with direct evidence of either physical symptoms of the distress or a clear showing of a notably distressful mental reaction caused by the outrageous conduct.  The plaintiff must present more evidence than he or she just felt bad for a period of time.  A plaintiff must prove that he or she suffered extremely unpleasant mental reactions.

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