Tennessee Tort of “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”

Posted on Dec 12 2017 4:04PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Tennessee has the tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress which is an important cause of action that allows a plaintiff to recover damages when the conduct of the defendant is outrageous.  There are very specific requirements for a plaintiff to be able to prove this cause of action in court.  In order to support a claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the following elements are required:


The elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim are that the defendant's conduct was (1) intentional or reckless, (2) so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society, and (3) resulted in serious mental injury to the plaintiff. Regarding the first element, the law is clear in Tennessee and elsewhere that either intentional or reckless conduct on the part of the defendant will suffice to establish intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Rogers v. Louisville Land Company et al, 367 S.W.3d 196, 205 (Tenn. 2012).  The Rogers case is a very important Tennessee Supreme Court case that definitively outlined the requirements for this cause of action.  In this case the court made it very clear that there is no difference between a claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and the claim for Reckless Infliction of Emotional Distress. Both are considered part of the same cause of action (either intentional or reckless conduct is sufficient to meet the threshold required for this cause of action).


Further, the familiar standard of “outrageous” conduct that has long been required for an Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress claim still stands. Specifically, that the conduct must be “so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society”.  Obviously, this is generally a jury issue however courts have long stepped in to evaluate whether the facts of a case meet this threshold before sending the case to the jury.  This standard is a standard that can change over time because it is based on what is tolerated by “civilized society”.  For example, it is my view that certain types of sexual harassment and sexually hostile work environment situations are currently experiencing a shift in what is tolerated by “civilized” society. Importantly, our country is making significant progress on what it considers to be outrageous conduct by individuals who sexually harass women.  It is my position, therefore, that this standard has changed over time and what may not have been considered outrageous conduct in the 1980s certainly is outrageous conduct today.


The final element for this claim is that the plaintiff must have a “serious mental injury” caused by the conduct of the defendant.  The Rogers case spelled out in very clear detail what is required to establish a “serious mental injury”. It is important to note that there is no requirement for a medical doctor or medical proof to be presented to establish that a “serious mental injury” has occurred. Instead, the court found that the jury can make this determination based on the evidence presented at trial.


The Rogers court outlined the evidence that can be presented to establish a “serious mental injury” as follows:


To summarize the preceding review of the law in Tennessee regarding the “severe mental injury” element of the torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress, the following nonexclusive factors inform the analysis and are pertinent to support a plaintiff's claim that he or she has suffered a serious mental injury:

(1)        Evidence of physiological manifestations of emotional distress, including but not limited to nausea, vomiting, headaches, severe weight loss or gain, and the like;

(2)        Evidence of psychological manifestations of emotional distress, including but not limited to sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, crying spells or emotional outbursts, nightmares, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and unpleasant mental reactions such as fright, horror, grief, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, and worry;

(3)        Evidence that the plaintiff sought medical treatment, was diagnosed with a medical or psychiatric disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, traumatically induced neurosis or psychosis, or phobia, and/or was prescribed medication;

(4)        Evidence regarding the duration and intensity of the claimant's physiological symptoms, psychological symptoms, and medical treatment;

(5)        Other evidence that the defendant's conduct caused the plaintiff to suffer significant impairment in his or her daily functioning; and

(6)        In certain instances, the extreme and outrageous character of the defendant's conduct is itself important evidence of serious mental injury.


The plaintiff may present this evidence by his or her own testimony, the testimony of lay witnesses acquainted with the plaintiff such as family, friends, and colleagues, or by the testimony of medical experts.


Rogers at 205.  These factors are not an exhaustive list nor are each of the factors required to be present to support this claim.  However, these factors are an important list of evidence that could support the claim that a “serious mental injury” has occurred.


A claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is often underutilized by plaintiffs. It is also often not taken seriously by defendants. That can be a huge mistake. This can be a source of very significant damages in Tennessee when the case involves facts where egregious and outrageous conduct exist.  Keep in mind that claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress are subject to the caps on damages put in place by Tennessee Tort Reform as I discussed in the linked prior blog post.  


Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Tennessee Tort Reform, Damages, Torts, Employment Law
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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Nashville, TN 37203
Phone: 615-540-1004
E-mail: jlee@burrowlee.com