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Personal Injury

Can I Sue For Emotional Distress?

September 29, 2022

Following an accident or traumatic event, it is possible to sue for emotional distress. To recover damages in such claims, though, you will need to show that your mental anguish was caused by another person’s actions. 

What Is Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress, also known as mental anguish, is legally defined as a highly unpleasant emotional reaction such as fury, humiliation, or anguish that results from another person’s conduct or actions. The causes of emotional distress vary significantly from person to person, and each person’s reaction can involve a combination of factors that impact their symptoms, treatment, and recovery.

Emotional distress under Illinois statutes is defined as significant mental suffering, anxiety, or alarm. It is often caused by some type of traumatic experience such as a car accident, a major health issue, a death in the family, or witnessing a frightening event. Victims of emotional distress may suffer a variety of different symptoms. Common symptoms include the following:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Decreased memory retention
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Increased irritability and anger
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors

The symptoms of emotional distress are similar to those of depression and anxiety disorders. Depending on the severity of symptoms, people suffering from emotional distress often require mental health counseling or psychiatric treatment to show significant improvement.

When Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

To sue for emotional distress in court, the conduct or actions caused by another person must be either negligent or intentional. If negligence or intentional harm applies, you can sue for emotional distress and seek compensation for damages.

When any act of negligence occurs, it is common knowledge to most people that you can file a lawsuit against the at-fault party for damages. However, many people don’t realize that you can also sue for emotional distress. Experiencing a serious accident can not only result in physical injuries but emotional suffering as well. Compared to physical injuries, emotional distress can be difficult to quantify. However, the damages and the impact on victims are still very real. Filing a lawsuit for emotional distress allows the injury victim to recover compensation for his or her mental suffering or anguish.

The courts recognize emotional distress as a type of damage that can be recovered through a civil lawsuit. This means you can sue someone for emotional trauma or distress if you can provide evidence to support your claim. Knowing when to hire an injury lawyer in Chicago who can build a case based on emotional distress may help you collect compensation for physical injuries, as well as emotional trauma.

What Is Required to File an Emotional Distress Lawsuit?

The legal definition of emotional distress clearly states that the victim’s mental anguish must be caused by another person’s negligent or intentional actions. For a lawsuit to hold up in court, certain criteria must be met.

Negligence or Intentional Infliction

The victim (the plaintiff) must prove that the defendant inflicted emotional distress due to negligent actions or intentional infliction. Negligence indicates that the person who caused harm (the defendant) failed to act with a level of care that a person of good judgment would have exercised in the situation. Intentional infliction means that the defendant intended to cause harm or showed reckless indifference.


A victim suing for emotional distress must be able to prove that he or she suffered mental anguish as a result of the defendant’s actions. The plaintiff must provide accurate information as valid evidence. This may include medical records that show treatments and prescription medications, eyewitnesses to the incident, and testimony from qualified medical professionals providing treatments.

Physical Trauma

Typically, Illinois emotional distress law follows the impact rule. According to the impact rule, the victim (the plaintiff) must be physically hurt, as well as suffering from mental anguish to sue for emotional distress. Mental suffering is defined as an emotional response to an experience that arises from the effect or memory of a particular event, occurrence, pattern of events, or condition. Emotional distress can usually be discerned from its recognized symptoms such as anxiety, depression, loss of ability to perform tasks, and physical illness.

What Types of Accidents Cause Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress is often linked to certain types of accidents that may cause additional trauma. These often include:

  • Car and truck accidents
  • Motorcycle accidents
  • Fires and explosions
  • Medical malpractice
  • Acts of war
  • Acts of violence

When severe accidents occur, victims commonly struggle with physical injuries that have life-altering consequences. Fractures and broken bones, burns, brain injuries, and spinal cord damage can completely alter a person’s emotional well-being and quality of life. Botched medical procedures and unnecessary surgical procedures can leave a person crippled and in constant pain. Complications in the delivery room with mothers and infants can result in psychological birth trauma.

Acts of war and intentional acts of violence commonly cause severe trauma that results in life-long battles with PTSD for soldiers and civilians. When someone is shot or fatally injured in a gun-related incident, family members of the deceased person often file wrongful death lawsuits involving guns. Witnessing the wrongful death of another person can be a traumatic incident. Wrongful death witnesses often struggle with severe mental anguish, making it difficult to cope with life and work.

Research on the psychological impacts of wrongful conviction shows that people wrongfully arrested for a crime face a range of difficulties readjusting to life. With the many problems they face, mental health issues are common. Victims of false arrests can seek emotional distress damages to compensate for their mental anguish and any subsequent expenses from care received, such as assessments, counseling, and medications.

How Much Can You Recover if You Sue for Emotional Distress?

Like pain and suffering, suing for emotional distress is subjective and often difficult to measure. Emotional distress can often qualify for both general damages and special damages. Because of this, if you sue for emotional distress, your damage awards may amount to two to five times the total costs of medical bills, lost wages, rehabilitation and therapy expenses, and medication costs. This amount can vary significantly on a case-by-case basis, however. These damages are determined based on a number of factors including total out-of-pocket cost, damages caps, and the severity of your pain and suffering or emotional distress.

Some PTSD lawsuits have settled for between $50,000 to $100,000. To prove PTSD in court often comes with challenges, and a plaintiff must have proper expert testimony. Jurors will want to hear from a treating psychologist or psychiatrist and see that the victim has undergone a significant course of treatment. An opinion from a specially retained expert is often not as convincing as the opinion from a treating physician. In cases involving veterans, one of the most common reasons the VA gives for denying PTSD claims is lack of evidence. Obtaining the evidence the VA wants to see to approve a claim can be a challenge to many victims.

Since it is very hard to put a price on how much your emotional distress is worth, you will need to clearly show how the emotional problems are affecting you if you want to receive compensation. The best option is to consult with an experienced, qualified personal injury attorney who can explain the process of establishing emotional distress. A legal representative may also help you coordinate appointments with therapists and psychiatric professionals who can help to document your injuries.

The purpose of making an insurance claim or filing a lawsuit after an accident is to make the victim whole. To this end, damages awarded are meant to put the victim in the position that he or she would have been if the accident had not happened. In calculating compensation for emotional distress, the more severe the emotional distress, the more compensation that’s warranted. 

How Long Do You Have to Sue for Emotional Distress?

The general statute of limitations for personal injury cases in Illinois is two years. In most situations, this is within two years from the date that the injury occurred. This statute of limitations applies to personal injury cases, including medical malpractice and wrongful death cases. Failing to initiate legal action in that time may result in you losing your right to pursue compensation. 

If the victim is a minor, under the age of 18, at the time of the accident, the statute of limitations is tolled until the child reaches his/her 18th birthday. Tolling the statute of limitations means they are suspended for a certain period of time. This allows the victim to file a lawsuit until he/she reaches his/her 20th birthday.

If you’re concerned about the timeframe to sue for emotional distress, discuss your concerns with your attorney. He or she can explain the filing requirements, guide you through the filing process, and ensure that your emotional distress lawsuit is filed within the proper statutory time limits.

About The Author

Photo of Jeffrey  Goldberg
Attorney Jeffrey M. Goldberg has spent his entire professional career handling cases involving birth injury, medical malpractice, product liability and related accidents.