Can You Sue Someone for Emotional Abuse in California?

If you have been trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, you know that words can cause real harm. Is that harm something you can recover for in court, or will you bear the losses caused by your abuser? Can you sue someone for emotional abuse in California?


Emotional Abuse Can Count as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Under California law, the technical name for a lawsuit for emotional abuse is “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress” (IIED). Filing an IIED lawsuit means you and your attorney will need to prove:

  • The defendant (person you sue) used outrageous conduct
  • That conduct intentionally or recklessly caused emotional distress
  • You actually suffered “severe emotional distress”

For a defendant’s conduct to be “outrageous” it must fall outside the bounds of decency. That may include creating or taking advantage of a position of authority within a relationship. In domestic abuse situations, this is often called dominance and control. It may also take advantage of your particular known vulnerability. Often one factor judges and juries consider is whether the defendant knew what they were doing was harmful.

Many domestic abuse situations fit into this category. Abusive spouses and partners can often say and do things specifically to cause their victims emotional pain and anguish. However, not every hard relationship is the basis for an emotional abuse lawsuit. “Severe emotional distress” is so substantial or long-lasting, no reasonable person would be expected to bear it. This could include:

  • Fear or horror
  • Anguish and suffering
  • Anxiety, worry, or nervousness
  • Grief and shame
  • Shock
  • Humiliation

To prove IIED, You and your attorney will need to show a pattern of abuse over time or especially serious events that go beyond what a reasonable person can stand.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

One challenge to winning an emotional abuse case based on IIED is showing that the defendant intended to harm you or acted recklessly without regard to the harm they may cause. Because this can be challenging, your lawyer may also suggest suing based on “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress” (NIED). Unlike IIED, NIED is a type of negligence. This means you and your lawyer will need to show that the defendant was negligent, and as a result you suffered serious emotional distress as a “direct victim” of the behavior. The questions for the jury will be whether:

  • The defendant owed you some duty of care
  • A reasonable person would be unable to cope with the mental stress caused by the injury

You may also be able to use NIED to recover damages for the witnesses or “bystanders” of your defendant’s actions, such as the children who had to watch their parent be abused. In addition to negligence, a bystander claim must also show:

  • The bystander and victim were close relatives (domestic partner, spouse, parent, sibling, child, grandparent, or grandchild)
  • Physical injury or death of the direct victim
  • The bystander was present at the scene and aware of the injury
  • The bystander suffered serious emotional distress (more than a passing stranger would)

NIED cases don’t usually get filed on their own. Instead, when the victims of domestic abuse file suit, they may add NIED claims to lawsuits for IIED, assault or sexual abuse.

Proving the Damage of Emotional Harm

One thing that makes IIED and NIED cases tough is proving that the defendant caused you physical or emotional harm. While you don’t need to have suffered physical injuries, there must be some monetary value to attribute to the damage. This might include therapy bills or lost wages if you were forced to leave a job. However, it can often be difficult to convince a judge or jury that even documented medical conditions were directly caused by the defendant’s emotional abuse. You and your lawyer should be prepared to work with your doctors to prove the damage caused by emotional harm.

Common Defenses to Emotional Abuse Lawsuits

Winning a lawsuit is rarely easy, and when the person you are suing is used to having power over you, things can get even messier. Defendants in IIED and NIED cases will almost always argue that they didn’t do what you said they did, or if they did, they didn’t mean any harm by it. They will also likely try to say their actions were not outrageous, or that you were just being overly sensitive.

Defendants will also often file “counter-claims” saying that you, not they, are the ones doing something wrong. In emotional abuse cases, common counterclaims could include defamation — libel or slander — saying your public statements ruined the defendant’s reputation. Depending on your relationship with your abuser there could also be employment claims, contract issues, or even real estate claims. For example, if you told your abuser to move out of your house, they could file a counterclaim, saying that they were wrongfully evicted. You and your attorney should carefully review all the circumstances before filing your emotional abuse lawsuit, so that you won’t be surprised when the defendant tries to turn the blame back on you.

What Damages Can You Recover in an IIED or NIED Case?

Emotional abuse can sometimes cause physical harm. Heightened stress can cause physical illness and mental or behavioral disorders that require medical treatment. However, you don’t have to be physically injured to collect damages in an IIED or NIED case. Whenever there are measurable costs to emotional abuse, you can recover for things like:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages from time off work
  • Lost earning capacity

In cases of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, a defendant’s outrageous conduct also makes him or her a good candidate for punitive damages. This is money awarded to the victim designed to punish the defendant for wrongdoing and are separate from the actual harm caused. Though they don’t happen in every case, for the survivors of domestic abuse, receiving a punitive damage award  can help them feel vindicated and restore their dignity.

At ADZ Law, LLP, we represent the victims of domestic violence, including emotional abuse, helping them get the compensation they need to move on into the next chapter of their lives. We represent clients in San Mateo County, California and the San Francisco Bay area.  We invite you to contact ADZ Law, LLP to schedule a telephone or video conference consultation and find out how we can help you.