Is it Possible to Recover for Purely Emotional Damages?

When most people think of personal injury lawsuits, they probably imagine that the plaintiff is suing to recover for physical injuries. While the vast majority of injuries for which most plaintiffs seek recovery are physical, not all of them are. Occasionally, a plaintiff has suffered from emotional injury so severe that he or she may be entitled to legal recovery. There are two situations in which a plaintiff may be able to recover for purely emotional damages with no corresponding physical damages. They are:

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NEID)

We will examine both of these causes of action below.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

A person may be able to recover for emotional damages in cases where the infliction of emotional abuse on the person was intentional. Georgia courts require a showing of four elements in order for a plaintiff to be able to recover for this type of injury:

  • The defendant’s conduct was intentional or reckless,
  • The conduct was extreme and outrageous,
  • The conduct caused emotional distress, and
  • The emotional distress was severe

As you may have noticed, the elements of an IIED claim use rather vague terms to describe what the emotional distress must entail in order for the plaintiff to recover, meaning that courts have a bit of wiggle room when deciding on the merits of each case. However, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress will not succeed where the defendant uttered “mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities.” Rather, the defendant’s conduct must be “extreme and outrageous,” which most courts consider to be behavior that exceeds all possible bounds of common decency. As such, recovery for IIED is intensely fact-specific to each plaintiff and will depend to a large degree on the plaintiff’s emotional state at the time of the incident.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

The other situation in which a plaintiff may be able to recover for emotional damages is negligent infliction of emotional distress. Most states allow for recovery for the negligent infliction of emotional distress in three limited situations:


  • Foreseeability rule: The defendant must have been able to reasonably foresee that his or her actions would have caused the emotional distress
  • Zone of danger rule: The plaintiff was in a specific “zone of danger” and at risk of suffering physical harm, causing fear, and
  • Impact rule: The defendant’s negligent act must have had at least a minor physical impact on the plaintiff, causing injury.

Georgia is one of the very few states that follows the impact rule, meaning that the emotional distress must flow from at least a minor injury for a plaintiff to be able to recover. There is one notable exception to this rule that allows a parent to recover for emotional damages from witnessing the death of their child, but this exception is rather narrow and is thus fairly uncommon.

Contact an Atlanta Personal Injury Attorney

If you have suffered a severe emotional injury due to someone else’s extreme and outrageous conduct, you may be able to recover. Contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling 404.255.6677. We serve the entire state of Georgia, including the following locations: Muscogee County, Newton County, and Richmond County.

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