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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Posted by Jamison Mark on Jul 18, 2023 3:00:00 PM

emotional distress

If you’ve suffered severe mental or emotional distress due to harassment, discrimination, or other extreme or outrageous conduct, you may be able to recover damages by pursuing an intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claim. While it’s not easy to prove a claim of IIED, successful plaintiffs may be entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages—that is, an amount intended to compensate them for their losses in addition to an amount intended to punish the wrongdoer.


How do you prove an IIED claim?

IIED is a legal claim that allows individuals to seek compensation for severe emotional harm caused by another person's intentional actions. The situations in which legal recovery is available, however, are narrowly defined. New Jersey courts have determined that to prevail in an IIED case, plaintiffs must prove four things:

  • That the defendant’s behavior was intentional or reckless
  • That it was extreme and outrageous
  • That it caused the plaintiff’s emotional distress
  • That the distress was severe

Actions that amount to IIED can occur in a wide variety of contexts, such as discrimination or harassment in the workplace or places of public accommodation or personal injury incidents such as accidents or assaults. Below, we’ll take a closer look at each of the four elements of an IIED claim and the kinds of scenarios they describe. 

Intentional or Reckless Conduct

For behavior to be “intentional” for the purposes of an IIED claim, the perpetrator must have intended both the behavior itself and the resulting emotional distress.[1] “Reckless” behavior, on the other hand, occurs when the actor behaves in a way that they know (or should know) is likely to cause emotional distress, even if that’s not their goal. For example, if you’re being harassed at work with repeated unwanted sexual advances or racist, sexist, or other bias-fueled comments, you wouldn’t necessarily need to prove that the perpetrator’s objective was to cause distress, since such behavior can reasonably be expected to do so.

Extreme and Outrageous Conduct

IIED is not meant to encompass behaviors like “mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions or other trivialities.” To meet the standard, the offending conduct must be "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."[2] So, while it can certainly be distressing if your boss is constantly rude to you, simple rudeness is unlikely to meet this test. It’s up to a jury to determine what behavior qualifies as “extreme and outrageous,” but making death threats, severe bullying, or malicious pranks are examples of conduct that could fall into this category.

Cause of Distress

In addition to establishing the nature of the perpetrator’s actions, an IIED plaintiff must also prove that those actions directly caused their emotional distress. This could be difficult to prove, since many factors can contribute to emotional distress at the same time. However, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove the behavior was the sole cause of their distress; it’s sufficient to show that it was a substantial factor in bringing it about.[3]

Severity of Distress

Finally, a plaintiff must prove that the emotional distress they suffered was severe. New Jersey courts have interpreted this to require the resulting distress to be "so severe that no reasonable man [sic] could be expected to endure it”[4] and "sufficiently severe to `cause genuine and substantial emotional distress or mental harm to average persons.'"[5] They determined this threshold was not met, for example, by a plaintiff’s “loss of sleep, aggravation, headaches, and embarrassment” that resulted from a bank’s failure to honor his checks[6] or by the humiliation suffered by a plaintiff who was subjected to repeated racial slurs by a store owner.[7] To prove the severity of emotional distress, it is helpful to document the duration and intensity of distress as well as any associated physical symptoms and the impacts it has on your daily life. Consulting a doctor and/or a mental health professional can help establish this documentation.


Preparing an IIED Case

When preparing to pursue a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, it’s important to keep detailed records of the offending behavior as well as its effects on you. Preserve any documentation you may have of the behavior, such as photos, video, or audio recordings or harassing texts or emails. Make notes of anyone who witnessed the incident and/or its effects, such as friends, family members, coworkers, employers, or health professionals. They may be called on to testify on your behalf. In some cases, expert testimony may be needed to establish the severity of your distress. Getting the support of an experienced attorney is critical in putting together a strong case with a high likelihood of success. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your IIED claim, you may wish to consult a specialist in employment, discrimination, or personal injury law. An experienced attorney can guide you through the legal process, help you compile evidence, and present a compelling case in court.

The Mark Law Firm has recovered millions for our clients in cases that involve employment law violations, race discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, personal injuries, and more. Learn more about our areas of practice, or subscribe to our blog for regular updates on New Jersey legal issues.


[1] Model Jury Charge (Civil), 3.30F. Approved November 1999. Accessed June 28, 2023.

[2] Buckley v. Trenton Saving Fund Society, 111 N.J. 355, 366 (N.J. 1988)

[3] Model Jury Charge (Civil), 6.12.

[4] Buckley v. Trenton Saving Fund Society, 111 N.J. 355, 366 (N.J. 1988).

[5] Turner v. Wong, 363 N.J. Super. 186, 200 (App. Div. 2003).

[6] Buckley v. Trenton Saving Fund Society, 111 N.J. 355, 366 (N.J. 1988).

[7] Turner v. Wong, 363 N.J. Super. 186, 200 (App. Div. 2003).

Topics: Employment Law, Discrimination & Harassment

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