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California Law on Emotional Distress

emotional distress, trauma, anxiety, California Personal Injury Law

Emotional Distress Claims in California

California law on emotional distress claims is based upon hundreds of years of jurisprudence including statutes and case law.  The rights of any particular individual to claim damages for psychiatric trauma from an intentional or negligent act depends upon many factors including whether the person suffered actual physical harm or was in the so-called “zone of danger” when a catastrophe happened.  California breaks down these rights in basically two legal causes of action as follows:

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Under the Laws of the State of California

In order to claim emotional injury, a plaintiff must prove the following elements:

  1. “Outrageous Conduct” The person who caused the harm must have been acting in a way that was “extreme and outrageous”.  As defined by CA case law, this can be shown in many ways including showing a “pattern” of behavior and not just an isolated incident, demonstrating that the person causing the harm abused a position of power or authority, or simply showing heinous acts that would outrage any reasonable human being.
  2. Intent or Gross Recklessness The person causing harm to another individual must have either intended to cause such damage or acted with a reckless disregard for the probability that the victim would become extremely distraught.
  3. Severe Emotional Distress The person harmed must suffer from more than just “garden variety” hurt feelings.  The distress suffered must be intense enough that it would be extremely upsetting to any normal person.
  4. Causation The conduct of the defendant must be a “substantial factor” (defined as something more than trivial or remote) in causing the emotional trauma.

Common Scenarios Where Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims Arise:

  • Traffic Collisions Involving Drugs or Alcohol If a person knowingly consumes drugs or alcohol and then chooses to get behind the wheel of a car, this is deemed extreme conduct that is probably going to cause emotional distress if an auto accident results.
  • Assault, Battery, Sexual Assault and Abuse If a person physically assaults another person causing great bodily harm or abuses their power or authority to gain the confidence of another person for the purposes of personal, sexual gratification, this is usually “per se” extreme conduct which causes severe emotional distress. A negligent security claim where the security personnel or police used gross, excessive force would be another, common example.
  • Product Liability Claims Where it is shown that a manufacturer or distributor of a product knew their product was dangerous or knew that it was probable to cause harm, they may be held responsible for the emotional trauma caused from bodily injury resulting from their product use.
  • Wrongful Termination of Employment When an employer intentionally or recklessly disregards the safety or rights of their employees.
  • Other Acts of Callousness or Gross Negligence Including intentional rip offs through fraud and deceit or extreme carelessness in the operation of a commercial business or reckless maintenance of a property that causes persons to be injured or killed.

What constitutes Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Under California Law ?

Sometimes the person or business who causes emotional harm is not acting intentionally or with such gross reckless indifference that they can or should be held legally accountable for psychiatric harm.  However, California law may still hold them civilly liable for being negligent and causing trauma to one’s psyche under the following conditions:

  1. Direct Victim of Bodily Harm: If one sustains direct harm from the negligence of another person or commercial entity, then they need only show that the negligent acts, errors or omissions were a substantial factor (i.e. more than a trivial cause) in causing their “serious” anxiety, nervousness, or fright.
  2. Bystanders To the Incident: If a person happens to be in the presence of a negligent incident but, was not directly involved, that person must show all of the following:
  • That they perceived the physical injury or death of the victim.
  • That the person was injured or killed due to negligence.
  • When the injury or death occurred, the bystander was present at the scene of the accident and able to perceive what was taking place.
  • The person standing by suffered emotional distress that was caused by the negligence of a third party.

Scenarios Where Bystander Liability Comes Into Play: The most common occurrence is a traffic collision where a bystander such as a passenger or other individual is standing at or near the scene and witnesses the gruesome occurrence causing injury or death to a loved one.  Other instances include the negligent mishandling of a corpse, the negligent misdiagnosis of a disease or the negligent viewing of injury caused by a defective product.



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