California’s Law on “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”

California law allows people to recover both compensatory damages and punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To recover, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant's conduct was outrageous and done either:

  • Intentionally, or 
  • With a reckless disregard of the probability that plaintiff would suffer severe emotional distress.

To help you better understand California's law on intentional infliction of emotional distress, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

You may also wish to review our article on "Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress" in California.

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1. The elements of a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress

To prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in California a plaintiff 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 the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress.1

2. The legal definition of “severe emotional distress”

Under California law, emotional distress can include (but is not limited to):

  • suffering,
  • anguish, 
  • fright, horror, 
  • nervousness, 
  • grief, 
  • anxiety, 
  • worry, 
  • shock, 
  • humiliation, and 
  • shame.2

But 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

3. The legal definition of “outrageous conduct”

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 the plaintiff's interests,
  • Whether the defendant knew that the plaintiff was particularly vulnerable to emotional distress, and
  • Whether the defendant knew that his or her conduct with likely result in emotional harm.4 

4. The legal definition of “reckless disregard”

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 his or her conduct, or 
  • The defendant gives little or no thought to the probable effects of his or her conduct.

It is not necessary that the defendant have acted with a malicious or evil purpose. It is enough that he or she engaged in outrageous conduct without considering the probable consequences.5

5. Does the plaintiff need to have physical injury to recover for emotional distress?

No. The plaintiff is not required to prove physical injury to recover damages for severe emotional distress.

But damages for emotional distress are often covered in cases in which the plaintiff has high medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity or other compensatory damages.

6. Can a plaintiff recover punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress?

Yes. Plaintiffs 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.

7. Examples of intentional infliction of emotional distress in California

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.

Have you suffered emotional distress in California? Call us for help

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If you suffered emotional distress because of the recklessness or intentional wrongdoing of another we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 to discuss your case with a caring and knowledgeable California injury lawyer.

We can also help you if you have been the victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress in Nevada.


Legal references:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1600.
  2. Fletcher v. Western National Life Insurance Co. (1970) 10 Cal.App.3d 376; CACI 1604.
  3. Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035.
  4. CACI 1602.
  5. KOVR-TV, Inc. v. Superior Court (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 1023; CACI 1603.

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