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Claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

From an early age, every child learns some variant of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is, or should be, the starting benchmark for human interactions.

As everyone reading this article knows, however, people are rude, mean, and simply jerks towards one another every day. Oftentimes others’ behavior toward their fellow persons will cause emotional distress to the person on the receiving end of such conduct. Even if a person intentionally inflicts emotional distress upon another, is this type of behavior compensable under Florida law?

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) presents a remedy to victims of outlandish and outrageous behavior. A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress requires a plaintiff to establish that:

  1. the defendant’s conduct was intentional or reckless;
  2. the conduct was outrageous;
  3. the conduct caused emotional distress; and
  4. the emotional distress was severe.

By its plain language, a lot of conduct could fall under the auspices of this tort. The bar to establish such a claim, however, is quite high.

Florida courts have stated that in order for conduct to rise to level of outrageousness, it must go beyond all bounds of decency and be regarded as odious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. Moreover, a person’s subjective response to the conduct does not control the question of whether the tort occurred. Instead, the conduct at issue is evaluated objectively by the Court to determine whether it was “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community”.

As a result, a person does not have a claim for this tort arising from mere insults, indignities, threats or false accusations. Indeed, it is not enough to establish a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress even if:

  1. the defendant’s intent is criminal or tortious;
  2. the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress; or
  3. the defendant’s conduct was characterized by aggravation or malice which would otherwise entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages for another tort.

The first two cases below demonstrate how courts found that certain egregious and offensive conduct was insufficient to rise to a viable claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The third case provides an example of a successful IIED claim.

IIED Example #1: Hotel “Bait & Switch” Is Not “Extreme and Outrageous” Behavior

In one case, a couple had reserved a private event space at a hotel for their wedding reception. Unbeknownst to them, the City of Miami Beach had shut down all of hotel’s ballrooms as unsafe and in violation of certain building codes nine days prior to the reception date.

The hotel did not inform plaintiffs of the shut down and instructed the staff to continue to prepare for the reception as planned. At the same time, the hotel attempted to resolve the shut down issue with the City (without success). The plaintiffs ultimately learned of the shut down issue hours before the reception, and the hotel chose to relocate the reception to the lobby area.

The hotel lobby was too small for the number of guests, the tables were “crammed” into the space, there was no privacy for the event, the disk jockey was told repeatedly to lower the volume, and hotel guests walked through the wedding reception (some in their swimwear) and participated in the reception by clapping during the introduction of the wedding party.

As a result of the reception being held in the publicly-accessible lobby, as opposed to a private ballroom, the plaintiffs’ wedding day was “ruined,” “a public spectacle,” “cramped,” and “very uncomfortable.” Additionally, the bride was “embarrassed,” cried uncontrollably, and had nightmares.

Plaintiffs then sued the hotel; one of their claims was for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Third District Court of Appeal found that the hotel pulled a “bait-and-switch,” and that its conduct was wrong and caused plaintiffs physical and emotional distress. This conduct, however, did not rise to the level of “extreme and outrageous” behavior necessary to establish a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

IIED Example #2: Supervisor’s Discriminatory Behavior Was Not Sufficiently “Extreme and Outrageous”

In another case, a former employee claimed that his supervisor discriminated against him due to his African-American race. This discriminatory behavior consisted of calling plaintiff the n-word and a monkey in front of other employees and over the work radio, instructing another supervisor to create a record of false disciplinary incidents for plaintiff so as to justify plaintiff’s subsequent termination, accusing plaintiff of stealing, persistently threatening to terminate plaintiff’s job for no reason, and assigning plaintiff dangerous work assignments and extra work (so as to eliminate plaintiff’s break times).

The Third District Court of Appeal found that the above-described actions were “reprehensible, objectionable, and offensive.” Nonetheless, the appellate court concluded that the supervisor’s conduct was not sufficiently “extreme and outrageous” so as to allow the plaintiff to recover damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

IIED Example #3: Insurance Agent Intentionally Inflicted Emotional Distress on Disabled Plaintiff

So, what set of fact may establish a claim for the tort? In one case, a plaintiff was receiving payments under an insurance policy for his complete disability. An insurance agent falsely told the plaintiff that he had received a letter from the plaintiff’s doctor stating that the plaintiff was no longer classified as disabled. The agent also falsely told the plaintiff that he was no longer covered under the insurance policy and tried have the plaintiff sign a paper stating that no further payments were due under the policy.

Because the insurance agent knew that the plaintiff was suffering from both a total mental and physical disability, and unjustifiably asserted power over the plaintiff, the appellate court found that the agent intentionally inflicted emotional distress on plaintiff because his conduct was viewed as outrageous by a civilized community.

Summary: Guidelines for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims

In conclusion, the law may afford a remedy to an individual who has been subjected to revolting and abhorrent behavior. Unless the conduct at issue is truly of the type that rises to an extreme and elevated level of outrageousness, however, any such remedies will probably not include recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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