Suing for Emotional Distress

Updated December 15, 2023
14 min read
Suing for Emotional Distress


When someone suffers physical injury due to another person’s carelessness or intentional conduct, it is common to sue them in court. However, some incidents can lead to mental suffering in addition to or instead of bodily harm or physical injuries.

Can you sue someone for emotional distress? Emotional injury can severely impact the victim’s life, and courts take pain and suffering on an emotional level seriously. Proving and quantifying your damages can be more challenging, but suing for emotional distress is still possible.

Below, we answer all your questions about suing for mental stress and emotional damage. We start by defining what we mean by emotional distress, the reasons to file an emotional distress lawsuit, and how to go about it. 

What Is Emotional Distress?

We have all experienced emotional distress at some time following challenging situations and strained relationships. It is a broad term that covers any mental pain, often linked with feelings of depression and anxiety.

People suffering from emotional distress may feel overwhelmed and helpless, have difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, struggle to recall information and isolate themselves from people or activities. The symptoms of emotional distress are varied. For example, some people may manifest continuous depression and loneliness, while others may show emotional distress through sudden, angry outbursts.

Under U.S. law 2023, emotional distress is any mental suffering caused by a particular event of negligence or intentional harm, including all the symptoms mentioned above.

Within the courts, you may also hear this referred to as mental anguish. Like physical injuries, the courts recognize this emotional pain as damage with full legal implications. As such, it is possible to file a civil lawsuit on emotional distress to receive financial compensation for the damage caused.

Types of Common Emotional Distress

When you’re asking yourself, “Can I sue for emotional distress?” there are a few things to consider. The three main types of emotional distress are:

Intentional infliction

In cases when the defendant’s deliberate actions are intended to cause mental suffering to the victim, the victim can file an intentional infliction claim. An example includes constant bullying and verbal attacks beyond all possible decency bounds. In addition, emotional trauma caused by reckless behavior is also classified as deliberate infliction.

In cases of reckless behavior, the defendant may not have intended to cause emotional distress but acted in such a way that created an unreasonable risk of harm. For example, this type of emotional distress can be caused by reckless driving, dangerous products, or engaging in extreme sports without proper safety precautions.

In these cases, the defendant’s careless disregard for the safety or well-being of others can be used to prove emotional distress. What must be established is that the defendant was aware of the risks and acted in a manner that would create an unreasonable risk of harm.

Negligent infliction

Conversely, the American legal system categorizes negligent infliction of emotional distress as negligent infliction of mental suffering when the defendant unintentionally causes mental anguish due to an accident or carelessness. The family left behind in the wake of a drunken driving accident would suffer emotional distress and be able to file a civil lawsuit if a drunk driver killed a child.

Some cases may be appropriate for intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuits. In addition, there are some personal injury cases (especially car accident cases) in which you can prove that either the defendant was “grossly” negligent or intended to cause emotional distress as well as physical damage.

Furthermore, employers may be liable for emotional distress if they fail to take reasonable steps to protect an employee’s safety or well-being. This includes cases in which an employee suffers emotional distress due to physical or verbal abuse, discrimination, or harassment that occurs in the workplace.

In short, if your employer’s action or inaction causes emotional distress to its employee(s), they can be sued for compensation. Or, where fellow employees cause emotional distress to a coworker, the employer can be held responsible for not taking appropriate steps to prevent it.

Bystander emotional distress or secondary trauma

This type of distress is caused when you witness another person’s suffering and suffer as a result. It may be a family member, a friend, or a stranger, but it can still cause emotional distress. For example, if you witness a car accident, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, fear, or other symptoms.

In this case, you may be able to sue for emotional distress and secondary trauma, having suffered due to the event you witnessed. Interestingly, in some cases, you can also sue for emotional distress if the car accident injured someone close to you, even if you were not in the car or present at the time of the accident. The most crucial factor is that you were emotionally affected by the event and experienced emotional distress.

Reasons To Sue for Emotional Distress

One of the main reasons to sue for emotional distress is to gain economic compensation for damages.

Depending on the extent of the emotional damage, the victim may have missed work while they heal, resulting in financial losses that can be recovered. Furthermore, the victim may be entitled to compensation for expensive medical bills or the cost of seeking help from a therapist to cope with the incident.

Suing for mental stress is possible, but in most U.S. states, your emotional distress lawsuit will only succeed if the incident responsible for emotional damages also resulted in physical harm. This can either be direct material harm to yourself, sexual abuse, or the real danger of being physically injured. However, in cases of sexual harassment or defamation, some courts have recognized emotional distress as compensable damages outright.

How To Sue for Emotional Distress?

You can sue for emotional distress if you suffer or have suffered from mental anguish due to negligence or intent to harm. You can start taking legal action by following these steps:

Document your emotional state

To win the claim, the victim must prove the emotional damage due to another’s actions. As such, start by documenting how you feel each day and ensure your work, legal forms, and medical records release form reflect your current condition. This can help back up your case and make receiving some compensation easier.

Contact an attorney

Hiring an attorney specializing in U.S. civil law to help you navigate the complicated legal system is very beneficial. They will review your documents, ask questions about the incident, anticipate appeals, and draw up a case using the evidence you provide.

File an emotional distress lawsuit

Depending on the statute of limitation, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the defendant once your lawyer and associates have been brought up to speed.

Pre-trial preparations

During this case stage, the opposing lawyers will present all the documents and information from the victim and the defendant. Based on this information, settling the suit and avoiding going to trial is often possible. The attorney’s role is to advise the victim whether or not to take a settlement payment or go to trial.

This is often preferable since a problem can be a stressful experience and may worsen the victim’s mental health at this unstable time. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict the outcome of a trial.

Going to trial

After both parties have argued, the courts, or sometimes a jury, will decide the case’s outcome. If the plaintiff chooses to go to trial, the court will determine a date for a hearing. Both parties will present more information on the problem and offer witness testimonies to the courts.

It is essential to know that suing for slander and emotional distress is notoriously tricky. It can be hard to prove damages that cannot be seen. It is much harder to prove post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another psychological condition than a concussion or a broken leg. Because of this, they are suing for emotional distress often requires a formal diagnosis from a doctor or mental health therapist. This person would then be the expert witness who stands before the court and offers testimony, providing evidence to prove the plaintiff’s emotional trauma.

In addition to the proof of mental suffering, lawyers who do legal investigative work on emotional distress claims must prove that the incident caused the damage. The attorney must prove the incident happened either through intent or negligence, which was the sole and direct cause of all subsequent mental suffering.

There is also a fine line between what incidents can be used in a claim. To successfully sue, the incident must be considered outrageous conduct, meaning petty threats or minor annoyances will not appear in a court of law.

What Qualifies as Emotional Distress Evidence?

During the discovery phase, your mental anguish lawyer will gather evidence regarding the incident, including documents and reports, to build your case. 

You can also prove that you were emotionally distressed if you provide a copy of the psychiatric treatment bills. If you do not have psychiatric treatment bills, having an expert witness willing to speak on the record is helpful, such as a therapist or doctor who diagnosed your mental illness. 

Your attorney will also suggest that you journal your daily activities and use a health tracker to document how the incident has affected your everyday life.

Is It Hard To Sue for Emotional Distress?

To determine whether or not you can pursue a claim for emotional distress, you may need to consult an injury lawyer. An injury lawyer will gather the required information to determine whether you can file a claim for emotional distress. 

If a case is viable, you can file it immediately. If a jury awards you a verdict or you and the defendant reach an out-of-court settlement, you will receive compensation for your damages. Your lawyer will work with you throughout the civil litigation process.


Suing for pain and suffering emotional consequences of an event caused by negligence or intent is possible under U.S. law 2023. This covers all mental suffering, including anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, and humiliation. Physical harm is often necessary to compensate for mental anguish, and a successful case needs well-documented evidence and strong witness testimonies.

Unfortunately, the lack of hard physical evidence can make an emotional distress lawsuit challenging to prove. As such, the first step for anyone suffering mental anguish caused by another person is to hire an expert legal professional to give them the best chance of winning.

Article by
Inna Chumachenko

Inna Chumachenko is the Content Lead at Lawrina. She is responsible for managing all the content found on the blog, guides, and other website pages. Inna has a degree in philology and a vast interest in law. In her role at Lawrina, Inna oversees the content team, establishes collaborations with writers, and curates content from various contributors.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the content for Lawrina, please feel free to contact Inna directly via email at or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much can I sue my landlord for emotional distress?

The amount you can sue your landlord for emotional distress depends on the nature and severity of your damages. Generally, the court will consider the level of emotional distress, the suffering duration, medical bills incurred as a result, and any other related costs.


What are the common emotional distress examples I should look out for?

Emotional distress can include anxiety, depression, fear, and insomnia. It can also involve physical manifestations of emotional pain like headaches, stomach aches, loss of appetite, or weight changes.

How can I prove the emotional distress caused by another person?

To successfully sue for emotional distress, you must be able to prove that the defendant’s negligence or intent was the sole and direct cause of your mental suffering. In addition, you may need to provide a formal diagnosis from a doctor or mental health therapist, documents and reports to back up your case, and witness testimonies.


What kind of damages can I receive from an emotional distress lawsuit?

You may be entitled to financial compensation for damages, including a loss of income due to the mental anguish preventing you from attending work or other essential activities you could generally do. It may also include medical bills, the cost of hiring a therapist, and emotional distress damages.


What happens if the defendant and I reach an out-of-court settlement?

If both parties agree to a settlement, the victim will receive compensation for their damages. This can be decided through negotiation with the help of your lawyer or by a jury if you go to court. The amount of money awarded will depend on the severity and extent of emotional distress. Lawyers for emotional distress can guide how to proceed with a settlement.