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What is Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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Negligent infliction of emotional distress is a complicated legal term which requires deciphering. The term "negligent infliction" means inflicting or causing with direct intention or inflicting on accident. "Emotional distress" is distress so great, past or present, it may be something for which damages can be recovered. Altogether the term suggests a person has without intent caused great emotional distress to someone else, and this was so great that the person may be liable for damages.

Not all regions will accept negligent infliction of emotional distress as an appropriate claim in civil trials. It is much clearer in most regions when there is intent to create emotional distress. A company that maliciously decides to place pornographic films in children’s movie containers could be sued for significant amounts of damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and they might face criminal charges for sex crimes.

The question that then arises is what would occur if this happened accidentally. Is the company intentionally trying to expose children to material that might produce distressing moments, or was it simply negligent, foolish and not as responsible as it ought to have been? Each jurisdiction would have to determine intent or negligence and then further decide based on its laws whether negligent infliction of emotional distress was valid.

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Part of the reason so many regions have challenges viewing negligent infliction of emotional distress as a viable charge is because it becomes very hard to know where any type of line can be drawn. Perhaps the company that put the wrong films in the wrong cases ought to be held responsible because it is a business, but what if a person accidentally slips on a rock outside, hits his head on the ground, begins bleeding, and terrifies the neighbor’s two-year-old? There is no intent to cause emotional distress, but were the charge allowed, theoretically the two-year-old’s parents could sue the neighbor for falling.

It’s conversely argued that juries could be especially useful in determining the merits of each particular case. Most juries or judges would likely decide the parents didn’t have a good case against the person who fell. Still, there is that gray area where a case might possess some merit and some fault, and where it may be harder to tell the appropriate course.

The word negligent needs to be understood more thoroughly as it can mean more than accidental. It can mean resulting from behavior that, while unintended to harm, is still irresponsible or perhaps a violation of the law. Suppose the man had terrified the two year old by picking up an illegal weapon and shooting himself in the arm, without realizing the child was there? Alternately, an unintended car accident caused by a moving violation causes a passenger horrible mental distress. By limiting the word negligent to accidental but in some way referring to responsible or downright violations of the law that unintentionally emotionally injured others, courts may have a better idea of when to accept this claim as valid.

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