The concept of a negligent infliction of emotional distress or NIED claim is a claim that people, organizations, and companies have a legal duty to avoid causing emotional harm to other individuals. It is understood that mental and emotional trauma can cause lasting harm to the people who have lived through such events, and according to California law, parties causing such harm may be liable to pay monetary damages as compensation. This may include traumas including suffering, shock, public or private shaming, humiliation, nervousness, horror, fright, anxiety, worry, anguish, grief, etc.

Additionally, California law has made it clear that there is not necessarily a need to prove an intent to inflict such distress. In fact, if the infliction was unintentional, the recklessness or negligence of the party causing the emotional distress can still support the cause of action. In other words, a case for the negligent infliction of emotional distress has merit if an ordinary, reasonable person would be unable to handle or cope with the mental stress caused by the circumstances of the incident or incidents they claim occurred.

Elements of an Emotional Distress Claim

There are commonly two types of negligent infliction of emotional distress claims made in California. Those include compensation for the “direct victim” and those made by “bystanders” who witness or are present during times of great mental stress caused by another party. 

Claims by a direct victim are cases in which the plaintiff’s claim of emotional distress is not based upon witnessing an injury to someone else, but rather is based upon the violation of a duty owed directly to the plaintiff. The elements of proof include that the defendant acted in a negligent manner, and that as a result, the victim suffered serious emotional distress, and that the defendant’s negligence caused serious emotional distress. These claims are often made in addition to claims of physical distress and damage.

The California Supreme Court has allowed plaintiffs to recover damages as “direct victims” in only three types of factual situations: (1) the negligent mishandling of corpses (Christensen v. Superior Court (1991) 54 Cal.3d868, 879 [2 Cal.Rptr.2d 79, 820 P.2d 181]); (2) the negligent misdiagnosis of a disease that could potentially harm another (Molien v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (1980) 27 Cal.3d at p. 923); and (3) the negligent breach of a duty arising out of a preexisting relationship (Burgess v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1064, 1076 [9 Cal.Rptr.2d 615, 831P.2d 1197])

However, proof of bystanders’ claims consider more factors. The plaintiff must be closely related to the victim. The defendant must have caused serious injury or death to the victim. The bystander must have been at the scene of the incident or present during the length of time injury had occurred so that they had a contemporaneous sensory awareness of the injury. Finally, as a result of this negligence, the bystander suffered serious distress beyond that which would be anticipated for a random witness of the events. Absent exceptional circumstances those claiming bystander Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress must be family members residing in the same household as the victim. 

For example, the recent claims of negligence controlling mold growth and failure to maintain a habitable living condition made against Lincoln Military Housing caused emotional distress to all family members involved because of Lincoln Military Housing’s duties owed to the tenants from their landlord. In one case, the young boy (the direct victim) who exhibited many physical and mental issues related to mold contamination would clearly be entitled to compensation for years of emotional distress. However, his parents who spent that same time in constant anguish and feared for their son’s health and future and they watched him sustain injuries, would be eligible for compensation as bystanders.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in California

In California, NIED law allows plaintiffs who have suffered emotional distress and damage at the hands of the defendant to recover compensation from them. Additionally, for larger organizations and corporations, this may include members acting on their behalf. In other words, employees and even contractors tasked with ensuring correct handling of a situation may cause the company to become liable. This is because they are assumed to be actors representing the organization.

Only if the plaintiff’s duty exists, does a case have merit. California has been at the forefront of negligent infliction of emotional distress law. The state has taken efforts to expand the availability of the NIED cause of action to ever-greater numbers and types of plaintiffs. Currently, under California law, a plaintiff-bystander can successfully sue the defendant for damages under NIED even if the direct victim was not significantly injured.

California believes that people have a duty to avoid causing severe distress and suffering of others. Again, there is not necessarily a need to prove intent to harm or cause emotional distress by the defendant. It is only necessary to prove the negligence of the party did, in fact, cause mental and emotional damage to the plaintiff or plaintiffs. Ultimately, if such a violation of duty can be proven, even if there was not an intent to harm, the damage was done. Therefore, the party responsible should be liable to compensate victims impacted by their negligence.

Are You In Need of Legal Advice?

If you believe you may be entitled to compensation for emotional distress, contact the professional team of lawyers at Webb Law Group, APC. Our team of attorneys can answer your questions about NIED law. We will let you know if you may have a case against the person or party acting on their behalf who caused you emotional harm.

Having a reputable attorney by your side for matters of this nature will offer you the best possible chance of navigating and making NIED claims of merit. If you feel that you need legal representation, we are happy to review your legal needs and provide consultation and support where necessary. For questions, or to schedule a consultation, contact Webb Law Group today at 559-431-4888 (Fresno) or 619-399-7700 (San Diego).