top of page
  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress? | California Laws for 2023

People filing a personal injury lawsuit may also be able to sue for emotional distress damages. These damages will allow the victim to recover from all the mental pain caused by the incident.


It's important to note, however, that not all people who suffer emotional distress also suffer from a physical injury. In certain cases, victims can file emotional distress claims without having suffered other injuries.


Unfortunately, since emotional distress is considered an "invisible" injury, it may be complicated to tell how much these claims are worth.


This page will explain how emotional distress claims work in California, including when it's viable to file a personal injury claim or not.


What's Considered Emotional Distress?

What's Considered Emotional Distress?


Emotional distress, in a nutshell, is a person's psychological response to a traumatic event. It's common to experience emotional distress after events involving physical injuries like car accidents, slip-and-fall accidents, and others.


It's important to note that emotional distress falls under a category of compensatory damages in California, meaning that people can seek compensation if they suffered a personal injury that also resulted in mental trauma.


According to the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, emotional distress can include any of the following emotions:

  • Suffering

  • Fright

  • Anguish

  • Horror

  • Grief

  • Anxiety

  • Nervousness

  • Worry

  • Humiliation

  • Shock

  • Shame

A person is considered to have experienced "severe emotional distress" if they can't cope with it.


Emotional distress is a personal problem, meaning that not everyone will handle their feelings equally. This is why it's complicated to recover compensation for these damages, as judges and juries may not perceive the emotional trauma the same way as the victim does.


Is Emotional Distress Different from Pain and Suffering?

Even though both terms may seem similar, there's a key difference.


Not all "Pain and Suffering" involves emotional distress. The term includes any physical and mental discomfort someone experiences after getting harmed.


Taking that into consideration, it's safe to say that emotional distress is a type of pain and suffering.


What's the Difference Between Intentional and Negligent Infliction?

There are two main types of emotional distress "damages."


Intentional infliction of emotional distress happens when the perpetrator makes a threat of physical harm or contact with the intent to cause fear or any other negative emotional response in the victim. In these cases, intentional infliction is part of a more complex case, such as sexual assault or harassment.


Victims who get harassed will likely suffer emotional distress, so they may be able to file a claim even if they weren't physically hurt.


On the other hand, negligent infliction happens when there isn't a direct threat or harm to the victim. This is common for people who witness shootings, vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, or other events. Those who get harmed by the negligent actions of someone else could file an emotional distress claim.


Can People Sue for Emotional Distress Without Having Suffered an Injury?


Yes. There are plenty of scenarios where a victim can experience serious emotional distress even if they weren't physically hurt at the time.


The most common cases involve negligent infliction of emotional distress, as mentioned above. However, there are other scenarios where it may be possible to suffer emotional harm:

  • Whistleblowers who are often under stress because of fear of someone else taking action against them may be eligible for compensation.

  • People who are bullied or harassed can file an emotional distress claim.

What this means is that even people who didn't get hurt directly from an accident, for example, can file a claim for emotional distress.


Is It Possible to Recover Damages Through a Personal Injury Lawsuit?


Even though most insurance companies will deny that emotional distress exists to avoid paying more money in a settlement, it's possible to build a strong case against them.


It's important to note that people who have suffered emotional distress don't have to prove that the other party caused intentional harm. Usually, personal injury cases happen because of negligence. In other words, the victim who suffers emotional distress has to prove that the other person acted in an "unreasonable manner," which led to the damages caused.


Those who want to file an emotional distress claim have to prove the following:

  • The defendant was negligent in their actions.

  • The victim, an ordinary and reasonable person, suffered emotional distress and couldn't cope with it.

  • The defendant's negligent actions were responsible for causing emotional distress in the victim.

People who experience any kind of mental suffering can recover the following damages if they get help from a personal injury attorney:

  • Lost wages

  • Medical bills

  • Loss of consortium

  • Loss of companionship

  • Therapy expenses

Can People Also Recover Punitive Damages for Severe Emotional Distress?

It may be possible to seek punitive damages if the emotional injuries were intentionally inflicted.

According to California law, if the defendant is guilty of fraud, malice, or oppression, the victim may also recover punitive damages.


There are a few cases where the victim may still recover punitive damages even if they didn't get hurt directly. A common example of this is when a loved one is killed by a drunk driver. Even if the driver didn't mean to hurt anyone, they still caused a lot of pain to the deceased's family.


The best way to know which economic and non-economic damages can be claimed is to talk to a personal injury lawyer. They'll be able to go over the case and provide their client with a plan of action. They can advise on questions like Is it illegal to flip someone off in California?


What Evidence Can the Victim Gather to Prove Emotional Distress?


Since emotional distress isn't the same as regular physical symptoms, it's much harder to file a claim for that.


Those who experience emotional distress due to a physical injury may have an easier time building their case, but what happens if there isn't any physical harm involved?


There are a few things victims can do, including:

  • Documenting any changes to their state of mind and/or daily routine.

  • Showing medical testimony from a psychologist or any other medical expert.

  • Showing witness statements from colleagues or loved ones who knew them before and after the incident.

  • Showing proof of any medical treatments or therapy sessions they've needed since the incident.

Depending on the case, victims could also provide:

  • Photo/video evidence

  • Police reports

The more evidence the victim has, the more likely they'll be to get compensated for their mental trauma.


How California Calculates Emotional Distress Damages

In most cases, a court in California will calculate compensation based on:

  • The severity of the emotional distress

  • Whether the infliction was intentional or negligent

  • The duration of the damages

  • The damage's impact on the victim's daily life

It's important to note that there's no standard formula for calculating these damages. Emotional distress, however, can add up to up to two/five times more than the victim's total economic damages.


The more proof (and legal help) the victim gets, the more likely they are to win their case.


Is There a Cap for Emotional Distress Damages in the State?

California usually doesn't impose caps for emotional distress cases, so it can be hard to tell how much someone can make from them.


There are certain exceptions to consider, however. A medical malpractice case, for example, has a non-economic damage cap of $250k. This means that victims can't get more than that in compensation.


It's important to ask a lawyer to see how much the victim could potentially make if they're successful with their claim.


What's the Statute of Limitations for Emotional Distress in California?

The statute of limitations for emotional distress claims in California is two years from the date of injury. This means that victims won't be able to file a claim after the deadline has passed.


California, however, also applies the discovery rule. It states that sometimes, the victim may not recognize their injury immediately, so their statute of limitations will expire one year after discovering their damage.


If a minor or mentally incapacitated person suffers any kind of emotional distress, they could also apply for an exception in their statute of limitations.


Are Emotional Distress Damages Taxable?

It depends on the case. If the emotional distress came from a sickness or personal injury, the IRS won't consider the awards taxable income. On the contrary, claims that only include emotional harm may be taxable.


Punitive damages, however, are always taxable.


How Hiring a Professional Attorney Can Help

How Hiring a Professional Attorney Can Help


Suing for emotional distress is too complicated for victims to handle on their own. Since these injuries aren't easily calculated or visible, victims will have a hard time proving how severe they were. This is when professional criminal lawyers in Sacramento CA come in.


The experts at Goss Law know how important it is to have someone to help during these times of mental anguish, so they gathered the experience necessary to get victims the legal representation they deserve.


An attorney can help the victim calculate the value of their claim, gather evidence, negotiate with insurance companies, and represent them in court if necessary.


Bottom Line


Those who have suffered severe emotional distress may be entitled to compensation, even if the damages didn't happen because of a physical injury. However, it's complicated to file a claim for these types of damage, which is why it's essential to get help from a professional law firm that can assist with questions like Is intimidation illegal in California?


Goss Law specializes in personal injury lawsuits, including those involving the infliction of emotional distress. Any victims of psychological or physical injuries should seek immediate assistance from these experts to get a higher chance of achieving maximum compensation.

bottom of page