In California, intentional infliction of emotional distress is a legal claim that arises when the defendant’s outrageous conduct causes you to suffer emotional distress and it was done intentionally, or with a reckless disregard for its effect.
A successful lawsuit can allow you to recover:
- compensatory damages and
- punitive damages.
To help you better understand the law, our California personal injury lawyers discuss:
- 1. How do I make a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress?
- 2. What is the legal definition of “severe emotional distress”?
- 3. What is the definition of “outrageous conduct”?
- 4. What is “reckless disregard”?
- 5. Do I need to have a physical injury to recover for emotional distress?
- 6. Can I recover punitive damages?
- 7. What are some examples of intentional infliction of emotional distress?
You may also wish to review our article on “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress” in California.
To prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in California, you must prove that:
- The defendant’s conduct was outrageous,
- The conduct was either reckless or intended to cause emotional distress; and
- As a result of the defendant’s conduct you suffered severe emotional distress.1
Under California law, emotional distress can include (but is not limited to):
- fright, horror,
- humiliation, and
Though to be recoverable under California’s “intentional infliction” law, emotional distress must be severe.
“Severe emotional distress” is not mild or brief. It is distress so substantial or long-lasting that no reasonable person should be expected to bear it.3
Outrageous conduct is more than just indignities, annoyances, hurt feelings, or bad manners.
Conduct is outrageous if a reasonable person would regard it as falling outside the bounds of decency.
Factors that go into determining whether the defendant’s conduct was outrageous include (without limitation):
- Whether the defendant abused a position of authority or a relationship that gave the defendant the real or apparent power to affect your interests,
- Whether the defendant knew that you were particularly vulnerable to emotional distress, and
- Whether the defendant knew that their conduct with likely result in emotional harm.4
For purposes of California’s intentional infliction of emotional distress law a defendant acts with reckless disregard when:
- The defendant knows that emotional distress will probably result from their conduct, or
- The defendant gives little or no thought to the probable effects of their conduct.
It is not necessary that the defendant has acted with a malicious or evil purpose. It is enough that they engaged in outrageous conduct without considering the probable consequences.5
No. You are not required to prove physical injury to recover damages for severe emotional distress.
Yes. You are allowed to recover punitive damages in California in cases of recklessness and intentional wrongdoing.
Because intentional infliction cases require “outrageous” conduct, they are some of the most likely for the awarding of punitive damages.
Types of cases in which intentional infliction of emotional distress is often found include (but are not limited to):
- Sexual assault or abuse,
- DUI causing death or injury,
- Assault and battery causing great bodily injury,
- Knowingly manufacturing or distributing an extremely dangerous product,
- Retaliation against a whistleblower, or
- Excessive use of force.
For Nevada cases, please see our page on intentional infliction of emotional distress in Nevada. This article was prepared by our California personal injury attorneys.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1600. See, for example, Christensen v. Superior Court (1991) 54 Cal.3d 868; Crouch v. Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc. (2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 995; Yurick v. Superior Court (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 1116; Plotnik v. Meihaus (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1590.
- Fletcher v. Western National Life Insurance Co. (1970) 10 Cal.App.3d 376; CACI 1604.
- Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035.
- CACI 1602.
- KOVR-TV, Inc. v. Superior Court (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 1023; CACI 1603.