How Much Can You Sue for Emotional Distress? Here’s What You Need To Know

Emotional distress refers to the emotional reaction to a memory of a particular event. Usually, it manifests as depression, anxiety, or physical illness and can interfere with your ability to function in daily activities.

As of 2021, approximately 57.8 million adults in the US suffer from mental illnesses. Data from the NIH explained two broad categories that describe mental conditions. These are Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI).

AMIs can manifest as behavioral, mental, or emotional disorders. Its impact can range from no impairment to severe. Conversely, SMIs can cause significant functional damage, which limits or disrupts bodily functions.

In personal injury law, people can receive damages for emotional distress after a traumatic experience due to another’s negligent behavior. For instance, employees can recover compensation for pain and suffering from their employer’s discrimination against them. Additionally, they can receive emotional distress damages from filing hostile work environments or sexual harassment claims.Suppose you or a loved one experience mental distress from an accident or a traumatic event. Then it is best to consult with a personal injury lawyer. Usually, law firms offer free consultations to discuss and choose the best legal approach for your case.

Key Takeaways
  • From 2017 to 2018, courts awarded at least $1 million in damages for each case in 19 percent of personal negligence suits.
  • Emotional distress can manifest in various forms, such as anxiety or panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Several factors, such as severity, impact, and pre-existing conditions, affect the compensation a plaintiff can recover.
  • Some states cap the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover for emotional distress.

Types of Emotional Distress Torts

Torts are acts or omissions that cause harm or injury to others. Tort law considers these acts civil wrongs and enables courts to impose liability.

The law provides legal recourse to injured victims for financial recovery from parties at fault for an incident. In addition, it discourages others from committing similar unlawful acts. 

Torts fall under three categories: intentional, negligent, and strict liability torts. Negligent torts describe harmful acts that a party performed with no intention to harm. Conversely, intentional torts refer to deliberate actions that cause harm or injury to another party.

Meanwhile, strict liability torts cover cases of inherent harm, regardless of the defendant’s intent or mental state. Unlike negligence and intentional torts, a claimant in strict liability suits does not have to prove negligence or intent. It is enough that harm or injury resulted from the defendant’s action or inaction.

Those who seek a remedy through tort law typically aim to recover damages through financial compensation. Two approaches in tort law cover the infliction of emotional distress: intentional and negligent.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)

IIED occurs when someone deliberately or recklessly causes another party severe emotional distress. It includes gender discrimination, false imprisonment, racial insults, or any conduct threatening one’s physical security.

For example, to establish IIED happened in your workplace, you must prove the following:

  • Your employer or their representative exhibited outrageous and reckless conduct.
  • They intended for you to suffer severe mental distress or knew their actions would likely result in such emotions.
  • Their behavior caused you to suffer from severe or extreme pain and suffering.

Victims do not need to suffer physical harm to establish IIED. However, certain intentional acts may not qualify as IIED, depending on who commits the action and who suffers from it.

An individual speaking negatively about a public figure may not equate to IIED. For a plaintiff to establish IIED, the defendant must have acted outrageously. 

Suppose a director in a film set repeatedly yells at an actor, making untrue statements about them in front of others. Then a jury may consider this incident to be IIED.

There are also possible defenses to IIED claims. For instance, suppose the plaintiff consents to the other party to engage in such conduct. Then the court might not consider their behavior to be outrageous. 

A similar result will occur if the act happened where the behavior seemed appropriate or expected.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED)

On the other hand, careless actions cause NIED. Qualifications for NIED vary per state, unlike IIED. Generally, state laws consider the following conditions regarding NIED claims:

  • The defendant’s behavior will most likely cause emotional distress
  • The victim was in a zone of danger or nearly missed physical harm and feared such harm

Few states require NIED claimants to prove bodily injury before filing an NIED claim.

Medical malpractice, such as misdiagnosis, is an example of NIED. For instance, a doctor incorrectly diagnoses a patient as HIV positive and does not notice the error until six months later. 

As a result, the patient develops severe depression from the diagnosis and takes HIV medication that makes them ill. The patient may file an NIED claim against the doctor.

Types of Emotional Distress in Personal Injury Claims

Proving emotional or mental distress in personal injury claims differs significantly from establishing IIED and NIED claims. Personal injury cases usually require a plaintiff to suffer from physical injuries.

For example, suppose a car accident victim who suffered greatly from disfigurement wants to recover damages for pain and suffering. Then they may do so by filing a personal injury claim.

On the other hand, suppose an incident did not injure the plaintiff but left them traumatized. Then they may pursue a claim for infliction of emotional distress under NIED.

Generally, it is easier to prove emotional stress stemming from physical injuries. This correlation is usually apparent to the court and jury.

Mental anguish from physical injuries or traumatic events can manifest in different forms.

General pain and suffering

A physical injury can still be significantly painful for a victim, even weeks or months after the incident. For example, injuries such as broken bones or burn injuries can bring about intense physical pain and suffering for the victim.

Examples of pain and suffering include the following:

  • Persistent headaches
  • Nerve damage
  • Neck and back pain
  • Muscle pain or sprain
  • Dislocation or broken bone pain

Sometimes, these conditions persist for a long time, depending on the patient’s lifestyle and treatment plan. Generally, a jury will award more significant compensation for severe or catastrophic injuries than minor ones.

Anxiety and panic disorder

Those who went through traumatic events may experience anxiety in different ways. Patients with an anxiety disorder may experience intense and excessive worry or fear of daily situations. Usually, these disorders trigger repeated episodes of panic attacks. Sometimes, the patient experiences sudden intense fear or anxiety for no apparent reason.

Anxiety disorders encompass various mental health conditions, including generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, social anxiety, and other phobias. In some cases, anxiety can stem from a medical illness or injury that needs treatment.

Common warning signs and physical symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Hyperventilation
  • Trembling
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Feeling tired or weak

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People who experience scary or dangerous events sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While almost everyone can go through various emotional responses after trauma, most people recover from them without intervention. However, those who continue to experience emotional distress may have PTSD.

Symptoms for PTSD usually manifest three months after the traumatic event. But in some cases, they begin years after. Patients must have experienced symptoms severe enough to disrupt work or relationships for at least a month to establish PTSD.

According to the NIH, an adult must exhibit the following for more than a month:

  • One avoidance symptom: steering clear of events, places, or objects that remind them of the experience
  • One re-experiencing symptom: flashbacks, frightening thoughts, bad dreams
  • Two mood and cognition symptoms: trouble remembering critical features of the incidents, negative thoughts about the world or oneself, feeling blame or guilt, loss of interest in pleasant activities
  • Two reactivity and arousal symptoms: feeling tense, being easily frightened, difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts


Depression or major depressive disorder causes patients to persistently feel a loss of interest and sadness. It impacts one’s way of feeling, behaving, and thinking and can result in various physical and emotional problems. Patients suffering from depression may struggle to perform daily activities and feel hopeless.

Depression may happen only once in someone’s life but usually appears in multiple episodes. When these episodes occur, patients may experience symptoms of emotional distress, such as:

  • Angry outbursts, frustration, or irritability
  • Feelings of emptiness, tearfulness, or sadness
  • Irregular sleep patterns and sleep disturbances
  • Lack of energy and tiredness
  • Eating disorders
  • Agitation or anxiety

Sometimes, people with PTSD may feel generally miserable without knowing why. On the other hand, patients may experience symptoms severe enough to cause significant problems in daily activities.

Factors Affecting Compensation for Emotional Distress

From 2017 to 2018, courts awarded $1 million or more in compensation to 19 percent of personal negligence suits. But the amount of damages an accident victim can receive from their emotional distress case depends on various factors.

You must establish that the incident caused physical and mental suffering to receive maximum compensation for your emotional distress case. While proving mental stress can be challenging, there are various categories that you might want to look into.


Generally, the more serious the mental distress is, the more likely you will receive compensation. If you sustained a physical injury, you might show its severity caused you emotional stress.

Similarly, the severity of your emotional distress can significantly affect how much a court will award you in damages. Whether your mental condition manifested physically through eating disorders, insomnia, etc., will matter in your case.

Duration and impact on quality of life

The period a person suffers from mental anguish is crucial in how much damages they may recover. In addition, some mental conditions require the patient to experience symptoms for a particular time. Thus, the time you suffered mentally and how you dealt with these emotional conditions are essential in proving your case.

Likewise, its impact on the patient’s quality of life plays a huge factor in recovering damages. For instance, how long have you missed work due to your condition? Did you suffer discrimination for your mental illness? Did you lose enjoyment in life?

You might want to address these questions to establish the trauma’s impact on your life.

Have you recently been injured in an accident?


The amount a plaintiff spends on treating their emotional distress will affect the compensation they will receive. For example, the court will consider the kind of counseling or other medical treatment you obtained due to your mental suffering.

Suppose you underwent treatment for a long time and incurred large bills. Then your compensation will increase proportionately to the expenses you incurred.

Pre-existing conditions

The opposing party can argue whether other stressors could cause mental or emotional distress. 

Suppose other events happened that may have caused you emotional distress. Then the other party may argue that their behavior did not directly cause your emotional state. Other stressors include marital difficulty, divorce, the death of a family member, etc.

Likewise, suppose you had pre-existing mental conditions similar to that you sustained after the incident. This medical history will significantly impact your case.

Limits on Emotional Distress Damages

No federal law limits the compensation a court can award to plaintiffs. However, some states may impose caps on non-economic damages. Generally, these limits prevent excessive jury awards that could bankrupt defendants or disrupt the legal system.

For example, a court can award millions of dollars to a plaintiff for a medical malpractice case. If the defendant’s insurance company pays those damages, it creates a precedent that might start an extensive chain reaction.

Suppose the insurance company increases doctors’ premiums associated with medical malpractice insurance to cover their losses. It will be more expensive for doctors to practice medicine, so they charge more for their services. 

Patients will have to pay higher medical bills, putting a strain on their health insurance. The insurance then increases premiums to cover losses, passing the costs to employers. Employers increase the prices of their products and services to sustain their businesses, and so on.

Caps on damages

Currently, eleven states limit non-economic damages for emotional distress. These include Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Hawaii only limits pain and suffering damages in personal injury cases. But they do not restrict other non-economic damages such as permanent disability or trauma.

In Colorado, they limit two types of damages in a medical malpractice claim. They impose a limit on non-economic damages and a “total” limitation on economic and non-economic damages in a medical malpractice claim.

Punitive damages

Courts do not award punitive damages in every personal injury case. But when they do so, it punishes intentional acts and discourages unlawful conduct. Usually, courts assess punitive damages based on the defendant’s assets or wealth.

Limitations on punitive damages vary per state. Typically, they impose a fixed limit or a multiplier based on the economic and non-economic damages in the case. For instance, Section 6-11-21 of the Alabama Code specifies the multiplier for punitive damages for civil actions. It should be at most three times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

Pro Tip

Document the symptoms and manifestations of emotional distress from the day of the incident. Presenting a written account of your experience will help recover maximum damages for your claim.

Seek Legal Representation From a Reliable Personal Injury Attorney

You can seek compensation for emotional distress in personal injury cases. However, the damages you receive for an emotional distress case depend on the circumstances and state laws. 

Regardless, it is best to approach a credible personal injury attorney to advise you on your claim. The Personal Injury Center has a network of competent attorneys specializing in emotional distress cases. Complete a short survey using the free consultation link on our site so we can match you with one in your area.

Our database includes law firms and attorneys with long experience dealing with personal injury cases. They can advise you on the appropriate legal approach for your case. If you want to learn more about personal injury cases in general, we suggest you browse their collection of legal articles. 

Let an experienced personal injury lawyer help with your emotional distress case. Contact The Personal Injury Center to find a lawyer for you. 

FAQs on How Much Can You Sue for Emotional Distress

You can employ various techniques to help you manage emotional stress better. For instance, you can take time to relax and care for yourself by walking or practicing yoga. 

These activities also encourage mindfulness to learn how to focus your attention and become grounded. In general, acknowledging your mind-to-body connection is an essential step in managing your emotional responses.

To validate your claim, you should present relevant documentation. Compelling evidence may include medical records, doctor’s statements, prescribed medication, and a testimonial from a mental health expert.

Generally, the IRS excludes income from lawsuits, awards, and settlements. However, it still depends on the circumstances, as not all settlements are exempt from taxes.