Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Personal injury, or tort, law, allows a person to recover in civil court for the physical, emotional and/or financial injury caused to them by an outside party. The emotional component of personal injury is most often represented by claims of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Although neither of these claims necessarily involves physical injury, NIED and IIED can have devastating and long-term impacts on a person’s life in ways that surpass many physical injuries. The bar for proving sufficient emotional distress is a fairly high one to succeed on a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), and is even higher for intentional infliction (IIED). This article will examine some common causes of action and the elements of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Litigated cases of NIED
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incurred from a car wreck or other accident caused by someone else’s negligence
  • Negligent physicians who cause an expectant mother’s child to be stillborn or have other complications
  • Airline passengers who experienced severe levels of fright after a near-accident
  • Potential victims who fear future physical problems after being exposed to toxic materials
Elements

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress is the “lesser” of the two personal injury actions because it can encompass activity that was accidental. To succeed in an NIED claim in North Carolina, the plaintiff, or injured person or their estate, must prove:

  1. The defendant behaved negligently
  2. It was reasonably foreseeable that such behavior would cause severe emotional distress to the plaintiff
  3. The conduct actually did cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress

As to what constitutes negligent behavior, this means that:

  1. there was a duty of care the defendant owed you (in most cases between ordinary citizens this is a duty of reasonable care)
  2. the defendant breached that duty, i.e. did not exercise reasonable care
  3. that the breach was the actual cause of your injury
  4. that your injury was a foreseeable and direct consequence of the defendant’s breach of duty/behavior
  5. that you were actually damaged as a result.

As to whether or not the plaintiff’s injury is a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s conduct, North Carolina courts ask whether a “reasonably” cautious person might have foreseen that severe emotional distress would result to the plaintiff. What qualifies as “reasonable” and “negligent” depends on the situation; for example, medical professionals are held to a higher standard of care when treating patients.

As to what constitutes severe emotional distress, the courts here require that it rise above the level of temporary fright, regret or disappointment. Rather, the plaintiff must be able to show that they suffer from a severe and disabling emotional or mental disorder that mental health professionals generally recognize and diagnose, such as chronic depression, neurosis, psychosis or phobia.

NIED because of injury to another

Plaintiffs can also sue for the negligent infliction of severe emotional distress that they experienced because of someone else’s injury. This types of suit occur sometimes when a person has to witness the injury or death of a loved one caused by another person’s negligence. However, to succeed on such a claim one must be able to prove that their distress was an immediate and foreseeable result of the defendant’s behavior. In addition, the plaintiff generally must physically witness the accident in order to be able to recover for this type of claim.

If there are too many intervening events and causes between the defendant’s actions and your injury, this will not qualify as immediate. For example, a woman who sued her husband for causing the death of their son in a car wreck was not allowed to proceed with her claim of emotional damages because she was not physically present during the wreck, even though she arrived at the hospital immediately after and witnessed her son being brought in as they were trying to resuscitate him.

Courts here also examine your physical proximity to the injury and your relationship with the person injured.

No NIED claims in employment law

North Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Act preempts any claim by an employee against an employer of negligent injury. This means a worker can still sue an employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress or hostile work environment—they just cannot sue the employer for any claim involving negligence.

If you or a loved one have suffered from the negligent infliction of emotional distress, it is important to speak with a skilled personal injury attorney. Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today for a free consultation with one of our experienced personal injury attorneys about the merits of your case. Personal injury claims must be made within certain time periods of the injury or you lose the right to bring your claim, so time is of the essence in this area of law.