Emotional Distress

The term “emotional distress” is used to describe a claim that a person has suffered emotional trauma as the result of another person’s actions. Examples of emotional distress can include severe anxiety or anger. In certain cases, such as those pertaining to sexual harassment, the only consequence that a court can legally recognize and award damages for is emotional distress. To explore this concept, consider the following emotional distress definition.

Definition of Emotional Distress


  1. An emotional reaction, such as anger or anxiety, caused by another party, and for which the victim can seek damages.


1250-1300       Middle English (destresse)

Emotional Distress Lawyer

Those who seek an emotional distress lawyer to help them with their case have suffered a severe emotional reaction due to the actions of another party. The victim may have, as the result of the other person’s actions, suffered thoughts of suicide, depression, guilt, anxiety and/or panic. The victim then may wish to sue the other party for the misery the other party has caused, and so the victim might search for a personal injury or emotional distress lawyer for assistance.

Those attempting to prove emotional distress might choose to hire a lawyer because emotional distress is one of the hardest — if not the hardest — legal claim to prove. If you suffer a physical injury, it is easier to prove because of the bruises or broken bones you suffered. It is significantly more difficult to prove that you suffered suicidal thoughts or extreme anxiety.

Emotional Distress Lawsuit

You might be able to file, for example, an emotional distress lawsuit after witnessing a person’s death that was caused by another person, either intentionally or negligently. You could also sue for emotional distress if you were present during a situation that caused you fear and/or a physical injury. In fact, in some states, you can only sue for emotional distress if the actions of the other person caused you physical suffering as well.

Consider the following example of emotional distress:

Steve is awoken in the middle of the night by the police breaking down his door. He has not done anything wrong, but they take him away in handcuffs, significantly injuring his wrists in the process. Steve  is charged with armed robbery, but he is eventually set free after the police discover they arrested the wrong guy.

Steve may be able to sue for emotional distress based on the anxiety and anger he felt over the police barging into his home in the middle of the night to arrest him for a crime he did not commit. If physical evidence is required, he can provide proof to the court of his injured wrists.

In situations where a party was so damaged that he has considered filing an emotional distress lawsuit, then he has more than likely been seeing a psychologist to help him cope. Copies of the bills he received after attending these appointments would serve as solid proof that he was so psychologically damaged by the incident in question that he was forced to seek medical assistance to help him heal.

Some lawyers also recommend their clients keep daily journals of what they’re feeling. It is a good idea if the person makes a note of all of the large and small ways their day is impacted as a result of suffering from emotional distress. For instance, maybe the suffering is so bad one day that he cannot possibly bring himself to go to work. He has run out of sick time, so he then loses income for the day, which affects his overall wellbeing.

Emotional Distress Symptoms

Emotional distress symptoms are similar to the symptoms that a person suffers when going through depression or a medical condition related to anxiety. Some of the more common emotional distress symptoms include:

  • Disturbances of sleep (either getting more of it or less)
  • Changes in weight or appetite (losing / gaining weight, eating more / no interest in food)
  • Chronic fatigue and lack of energy
  • Memory problems
  • Favoring being alone over spending time with friends
  • Mood swings
  • Physical symptoms that doctors can’t otherwise explain, like chronic pain, headaches, or constipation
  • Difficulty managing your temper
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviors

It is important that those who are feeling emotional distress symptoms see their doctor to ensure that what they are feeling is not simply the result of some other health problem. If the patient is issued a clear bill of health by his doctor, but the symptoms remain, he may be experiencing emotional distress.

Emotional Distress Damages

The term “emotional distress damages” refers to the monies awarded to a plaintiff in a case wherein that person has suffered a severe psychological impact as the result of the actions of another person. Emotional distress damages are often sought after in personal injury cases. This is because of the toll a physical injury can take on the mind after a person has been involved in a car accident. There is all of the stress surrounding physical therapy and learning how to use that part of the body again, plus the stress involved in not being able to work as well – or at all – anymore, and coping with the resulting lack of income.

The amount of emotional distress damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff varies greatly, depending on the type of injury suffered. The jurisdiction where the emotional distress lawsuit is filed can also play a part in how much damages are awarded.

Emotional Distress Example Involving the Westboro Baptist Church

Perhaps the best example of emotional distress in a Supreme Court case can be found in the matter of Snyder v. Phelps, a case from 2011. Here, U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. On March 10, his funeral was held in Maryland, and the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) showed up to picket it.

The protest was one of thousands the group had participated in at other funerals throughout the U.S. The group’s motivation was to protest the increasing tolerance of homosexuality throughout the U.S. Picketers carried signs with statements written on them, like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Semper Fi, Fags.” The WBC had also criticized the Snyder family on their website, saying the family had “taught Matthew that God was a liar” by choosing to raise him Catholic.

Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, sued the WBC, along with two of the daughters of Fred Phelps, the church’s minister, for, among other things, the intentional infliction of emotional distress. He claimed that the WBC’s actions caused him to cry, become angry, and become nauseated to the point of vomiting. He also claimed that the WBC’s actions caused him to remember the horrible events that took place during his son’s funeral every time he thought of his son. Also, several experts testified that the WBC’s actions caused Snyder’s depression and diabetes to worsen.

The WBC countered that they had complied with all of the local laws and that they had obeyed the police. They claimed the picket was about 1,000 feet from the church, separated from the church by police, and that, from that location, they could not be seen nor heard. Snyder testified that he did not know about the protest until he had watched the news coverage of it that aired later that day. He also testified that he had found the WBC’s statements they made on their website about his son via a Google search.

Ultimately, the Snyder family was awarded $5 million in damages by the district court. However, on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court, saying the latter’s decision violated the WBC’s freedom of religious expression as protected by the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s damages ruling and ordered Snyder to pay the WBC’s court costs in the amount of $16,510.

Snyder then filed a writ of certiorari to request that the case be heard by the United States Supreme Court. The Court granted the writ and then had to decide whether the First Amendment applies to those who choose to protest a funeral, and whether they should be charged with intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the deceased’s family.

In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and decided that yes, the First Amendment does protect those who protest at a member of the military’s funeral from liability. Specifically, the Court wrote:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.