Emotional Liability for Employee Emotional Distress Claims

By Walter, Robert J.; Sleeper, Bradley J. | Review of Business, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Emotional Liability for Employee Emotional Distress Claims


Walter, Robert J., Sleeper, Bradley J., Review of Business


Introduction

Employees and former employees often successfully sue businesses for emotional harm attributed to their employers' conduct. Although the legal basis for such suits is not new, its use is rapidly increasing. Nearly all states now recognize what the law terms "intentional infliction of mental or emotional injuries" [7]. This article explains the context in which these suits commonly occur, their legal requirements, the impact of state worker compensation laws on their availability, and the extent of potential losses to employers. Finally, recommendations for employers to avoid this potentially crippling liability are offered.

Emotional distress suits are frequently brought in conjunction with discrimination suits, particularly racial, gender, or age discrimination claims [7,8]. They are also often combined with wrongful discharge suits where a fired employee claims that his or her termination was wrongful because it violated legislative or court-recognized protections for the employee. Such protections exist, for example, if employees are fired because they file claims for workers' compensation, they report safety rule violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or, in some states, because they are ill [9]. In many suits involving emotional distress, the employee argues that the same conduct that violated discrimination or wrongful discharge laws also caused emotional or mental injuries.

An employee who brings an emotional distress suit may be motivated by the possibility of increasing compensation for damages in addition to those otherwise recoverable. Federal and state discrimination laws generally provide for damage limits. Because emotional distress suits involve court-created remedies, usually no monetary limits exist. In addition, emotional distress suits may succeed where discrimination or wrongful discharge suits do not.

Requirements for Emotional Distress Suits

Most courts recognize four requirements for an emotional distress lawsuit: (1) the employer acted intentionally or recklessly, (2) the employer's conduct was extreme and outrageous, (3) the employer's actions caused the employee mental distress and (4) the emotional distress was severe [14].

The employer's intentional or reckless conduct is most often found in termination, demotion, or transfer decisions that also constitute illegal age, sex, or race discrimination. For instance, in a Texas case, a 60-year-old paper company vice president was reassigned as an entry level supervisor in a warehouse [19]. The vice president had more than 30 years experience in the paper business and a college degree but was placed under the supervision of an individual in his 20s. This demotion occurred during a corporate transition to a young managerial team. The former vice president was subjected to age-related verbal abuse and was ultimately reduced to sweeping the floors and cleaning up the employees' cafeteria. He later won a sizeable emotional distress award.

Another example is a recent Ohio case where a track driver was fired for violating federal regulations limiting the number of driving hours within a given period [6]. Earlier the driver had been told by his employer that he would be replaced if he did not accept assignments exceeding those hourly limits. The employee responded to his discharge by suing the tracking company for intentional infliction of emotional distress. After his firing, the driver received medical treatment for anxiety related to his job loss. A court ultimately required the employer to pay its former driver $300,000 in damages. The truck driver had also sued his former employer for wrongful discharge. However, the court dismissed the track driver's wrongful discharge suit on the grounds that the state lacked a clear public policy prohibiting the employer's discharge of a driver for exceeding federal driving time limits as the employer had demanded.

While such deliberate conduct can lead to employer liability for emotional distress, the intentional or reckless element of an emotional distress suit can also be found in inaction where the employer has a duty to take corrective measures. …

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