Emotional Distress

There may be many instances in our lives when we’ve encountered people who intentionally inflict emotional distress in others. They may have been a playground bully, the “mean girl” in high school or the sociopath who happens to be your boss. These people may be intentionally inflicting emotional distress on others, but that doesn’t mean a lawsuit against them will be successful.

Because of the fact so many are emotionally hurt by so many others who are willing and able to make others’ lives miserable, the courts are reluctant to get involved. Though it’s not impossible to successfully sue someone for intentional infliction of emotional distress, it’s very difficult.

There are basically two types of legal actions that could be filed against an employer. One is based on state or federal statutes, where a legislature has spelled out that some kind of action is made illegal and the courts interpret those statutes in particular cases. Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a common law cause of action. There is no statute, so over time, judges create a cause of action and the standards that must be met.

In Virginia, the case that opened the door to these kinds of lawsuits, in which there are only emotional and psychological wounds (not physical ones) due to the intentional acts of another is the case of Womack v. Eldridge, 215 Va. 338, 210 S.E.2d 145 (1974), which was decided by the state’s Supreme Court.

This case started because of the actions of a private investigator, working for a criminal defense attorney. The trial court found in plaintiff’s favor and the defendant appealed.

Danny Lee Womack was a coach at a business called Skateland. Richard Seiffert was accused of molesting two boys and hired a defense attorney. That attorney hired investigator Rosalie Eldridge to help him defend the case. She went to Womack’s home and lied to him in order get into his home and take his picture. Eldridge claimed to be a reporter writing a story on Skateland and asked if she could take his picture, and he agreed.

The attorney showed the victims Womack’s picture at a preliminary hearing and they stated he was not their attacker. Seiffert and Womack do not look like each other and the attacks didn’t take place at Skateland (though Seiffert was arrested there).

Despite the fact the victims stated Womack was not the attacker, the Commonwealth’s Attorney asked to see the photo and requested additional information about the person in it. Eldridge took the stand and she supplied Womack’s name and address. Womack then went down a legal rabbit hole:

  • A detective was sent to his home and brought him to court.
  • The detective told Womack his photograph had been presented in court, the Commonwealth’s Attorney wanted him to appear at the proceedings and he could either appear voluntarily or he would be summoned.
  • Plaintiff agreed to go voluntarily. When called as a witness, plaintiff described how his photo was taken and stated he had not molested any children and that he knew nothing about the charges against Seifert.
  • A police officer questioned plaintiff several times thereafter.
  • Womack was also summoned to appear as a witness before the grand jury but he was not called. However, he was summoned to appear several times at Seifert’s trial in the circuit court because of continuances of the cases.

Womack testified during his civil trial that he suffered great shock, distress and nervousness because of Eldridge’s fraud and deceit and her wanton, willful and malicious conduct in obtaining his photograph and turning it over to Seifert’s attorney to be used in court. Testimony at the trial was also that,

  • Womack suffered great anxiety as to what people would think of him and feared that he would be accused of molesting the boys.
  • He had been unable to sleep while the matter was being investigated.
  • While testifying Womack became emotional and incoherent.
  • Plaintiff’s wife also testified that her husband experienced great shock and mental depression from the involvement.

In its decision, the court stated a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress could be made, even if there are no physical injuries. The court spelled out a four part test for these cases:

  1. The wrongdoer’s conduct was intentional or reckless: The wrongdoer’s purpose was to inflict emotional distress or specific conduct was intended and it was known, or should have been known, that emotional distress would likely result.
  2. The conduct was outrageous and intolerable: It offends the generally accepted standards of decency and morality. This requirement is to limit frivolous legal claims and avoid litigation where only bad manners and hurt feelings result.
  3. There is a causal connection between the wrongdoer’s conduct and the emotional distress.
  4. The emotional distress is severe.

The court found that a jury could find for plaintiff on all these issues and upheld the decision.

  • There was nothing to suggest Womack molested the children.
  • The only link between Seiffert and Womack was that the arrest took place where Womack’s worked.
  • A reasonable person would or should have recognized the likelihood of the serious mental distress that would be caused in involving an innocent person in child molestation cases.
  • If the two boys had hesitated in answering that the man in the photograph was not the one who had molested them, suspicion would have been pointed at the plaintiff.

As time has passed, courts have clarified and restricted this decision.

  • When deciding if “conduct” was outrageous, one needs to look at the person’s behavior, not particular acts. Russo v. White, 241 Va. 23, 400 S.E.2d 160 (1991)
  • Because of the difficulty in proving a tort claiming an injury to the plaintiff’s mind or emotions, without any physical injury, the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress is “not favored” in the law. Harris v. Kreutzer, 271 Va. 188, 624 S.E.2nd 24 (2006) As a result, more facts need to be included in a complaint compared to a negligence claim, or else the plaintiff risks having the case dismissed before a trial can take place.

An intention infliction of emotional distress claim can be made in the context of an employment situation. For instance, a circuit court found a viable claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress involving a supervisor continuously making sexual advances on an employee and fires the person for not acting on those advances. The court ruled the supervisor may be liable if the victim can establish severe emotional distress. Oelgoetz v. Appalachian Appraisal Services, Inc., 51 Va. Cir. 334 (2000).

As a practical matter, attorneys representing employees would rather rely on federal and state statutory claims against an employer, than rely on this common law cause of action, because of its high, and not very clear, standards of proof.

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