Emotional Distress Definition Under Tennessee State Law

Emotional distress is a phrase you hear often in lawsuits, but it can be tricky to describe. The definition of emotional distress under Tennessee state law is “significant mental suffering or distress that may, but does not necessarily, require medical or other professional treatment or counseling.”

That definition comes from part of a Tennessee law about stalking and harassment. A stalker, for instance, may produce emotional distress by subjecting a victim to unconsented contact “that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.”

Can I sue for emotional distress?

Victims can sue for emotional distress, but these cases can be difficult to win, especially if there is no physical injury accompanying the emotional suffering. Physical injuries produce tangible consequences such as medical expenses, lost wages, and damaged property. Emotional stress is much harder to quantify.

One example might be a person who survives a car crash in Knoxville in which a loved one dies. If the plaintiff can prove negligence, then any mental or emotional suffering resulting from the accident might be a recoverable damage. Seeing a loved one killed in an accident would traumatize anybody, but not every case of emotional distress will be so clear.

Proving emotional distress

Tennessee case law recognizes something called the tort of intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that in order to claim damages through this tort, a plaintiff must demonstrate three things:

  • The defendant acted intentionally or recklessly;
  • The defendant’s conduct was “so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society;” and
  • The action caused a serious mental injury.

Tennessee used to require plaintiffs to prove physical effects from the stress in order to receive compensation. But in this case, the court outlined a more nuanced set of criteria for determining emotional distress. The ruling listed six factors for consideration when deciding to award damages for the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional stress:

  • Whether the stress produced physical effects, such as nausea, headaches, or changes in weight;
  • Whether there are psychological effects, such as depression, anxiety, or other mental-health issues;
  • Whether the plaintiff sought medical or mental-health care or received a diagnosis following the defendant’s action;
  • The duration and intensity of the stress;
  • Whether the plaintiff demonstrates “significant impairment in his or her daily functioning” because of the stress; and
  • Whether the act itself was severe or shocking enough, such as attempted murder, that its very occurrence is evidence it caused stress.

Do I need a lawyer?

Since the law in Tennessee leaves room for a judge or jury’s interpretation of what might constitute emotional stress, it is important for an attorney to help you gather the right evidence or expert testimony to make a persuasive case. An attorney with the Law Offices of Ogle, Elrod & Baril, PLLC can help. Call 865-546-1111 today to arrange a free consultation.