Can You Sue for Emotional Abuse?

Can You Sue for Emotional Abuse
Can You Sue for Emotional Abuse

One of the most difficult speeches for any of us to give is one that is loaded with a great deal of emotion. We need to understand that the topic that we will be discussing can cause our audience to have significant reactions to our words. When we are asked to give this type of speech, it becomes our responsibility to take the time to understand what kind of impact our words are going to have on our audience. Yes, we have important information to share, but we also have to make sure that we respect our audience and their emotions. Let’s take a look at how we might go about giving a speech on emotional abuse.

Domestic abuse that includes physical and sexual abuse is a crime (usually assault and battery and/or sexual abuse and rape). The abuser can not only be charged by the state, but their victim can also sue them in a civil case.

But what about a type of abuse that leaves no physical trace? Can you sue for emotional abuse?

The answer is yes. Tort law covers “outrage,” which includes intentional behavior that leads to extreme emotional distress. However, the rules for suing are very explicit, and the case must meet all the standards to even come close to being successful.

Were you the victim of emotional abuse at the hands of a romantic partner – or someone else? Keep reading to learn more about your options.

Emotional Abuse: What It Is and What You Can Sue For

Emotional abuse occurs when one party uses language or behaviors that cause psychological trauma, which can also lead to physical symptoms. Lying, slander, and forcing someone to look at disturbing images are all types of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is particularly prevalent at the end of relationships.

Verbal abuse differs from emotional abuse. The verbal form may include insults, criticisms, and other types of verbal bullying. Anyone can participate in verbal abuse at any point. However, it becomes a pattern and can become emotional abuse when someone uses these tactics to control another person or as a type of revenge.

Neither of these types of abuse leave bruises or physical scars. However, they can and often are extremely damaging to the victim’s psyche, including their mood and sense of self.

Unfortunately, emotional abuse takes on many forms. No form of emotional abuse is acceptable – ever. However, not all types constitute a civil case. These cases are very contextual, and your claim depends on your particular situation.

Who Can Commit Emotional Abuse?

Most of us think of emotional abuse in the context of romantic partners, but emotional abuse can occur in both personal, professional, and even casual relationships.

Generally, anyone who has power to abuse can commit emotional abuse that falls under tort law.

For example, if your boss summons you to his office, accuses you of immoral conduct with various coworkers, and then threatens to (or does) tell the entire office unless you confess, and you experience severe emotional distress, then your boss could be liable under tort law. 

Civil Suits Won’t Protect You Right Now: Get a Restraining Order First

Civil lawsuits, like those for emotional abuse, can help you recoup losses and get justice. However, it is not a way to get immediate protection.

If you need help getting away from an abuser right now, you need the help of the criminal justice system. A temporary restraining order is usually the first step. You can also contact organizations such as

  • The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline

If violence is a real and present threat, get in touch with these networks, who can connect you to attorneys, caseworkers, and the police to protect you.

The Elements of Outrage (Emotional Abuse)

In order to build a case for the intentional infliction of emotional distress (ILED), the treatment you endured needs to meet four elements.

First, it must be the case that the alleged abused acted in a way that was intentional or reckless. In other words, they knew that they were causing you emotional distress – it was the point of their behavior.

Second, their conduct needs to be extreme. Calling you names behind closed doors is hurtful and never okay, but it doesn’t count. You’ll learn more about what tort law finds to be extreme later.

Third, the defendant’s behavior needs to be the cause of distress. For example, it can’t be the result of a cumulation of other unfavorable events.

Finally, you need to suffer severe emotional distress as a result of the behavior inflicted upon you.

How do you prove all this? It all starts with medical professionals.

How to Begin the Proceedings for an Emotional Abuse Case

If you are ready to sue, then there’s a long list of people you need to speak to before filing. Here’s what you need to do and who you need to see before you are ready for court.

1. See a Doctor or Another Trusted Professional

The first step of your case begins with the fourth element of ILED: your severe emotional distress.

To successfully initiate and win an emotional abuse lawsuit, you need to prove that you experience severe emotional distress. The best way to do this is to see your physician, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist who can provide you with a reference or even a diagnosis. Many victims of emotional abuse suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although you might be most familiar with PTSD as something experienced after a life-altering event (i.e., soldiers on the front line, witnessing a mass shooting), severe stress can occur as a result of poor relationships. Remember, PTSD isn’t a weakness: it’s a natural reaction to extreme conditions.

For example, if a former partner became blind drunk and forced you into a car and then proceeded to crash the car, you might experience PTSD. They are not only liable for the accident but also potentially for emotional abuse for forcing you into a dangerous situation.

Step 1a. Break Up or Get a Divorce

If you and your abuser are married and you wish to sue for emotional abuse, then you may need to get a divorce to file a successful civil suit

When you are married, your property is jointly-owned or community. Even if the jury convicted one spouse of domestic violence or found in favor of the defendant in an emotional abuse case, there would be no legal way to transfer money from one spouse to the other.

You may need to at least file for divorce before seeking civil suit damages.

Step 2. Seek Out Witnesses

As painful as it is to seek help, those first connections are critical for your case.

For example, a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another mental health professional can testify on your behalf. They can also explain to the court how your diagnosis affects your life.

Other witnesses can also be very helpful. Even though so much abuse goes on behind closed doors, anyone who has seen or heard the abuse can help bolster your case.

Step 3. Find an Attorney

Suing for mental abuse is not dissimilar to suing for emotional distress in a personal injury lawsuit.

Mental abuse can be challenging to prove, and your ability to make a clear, concise case is essential.

Often, a domestic violence lawyer or a personal injury lawyer will take these cases and work on contingency. That means they don’t ask for a fee unless you win a settlement.

Although finding an attorney is third on your list, you may find you need to hire one sooner rather than later. A lawyer who specializes in domestic violence cases can not only help you with the lawsuit, but they can also:

  • Get a restraining order (protective order)
  • File for divorce
  • Ask for custody 

These are all things you may need before you’re ready to file a domestic violence lawsuit.

Step 4. Preparing Your Case

If you already have a final protection order against your abuser, you may already have gone through the initial process of making your case.

If you don’t want or don’t need a final protection order, then you have work to do.

Because emotional abuse doesn’t leave marks, you need to build a consistent case based on witness testimony.

Witnesses can include family members, children, friends, strangers, law enforcement officers, doctors, or anyone who witnessed or experienced the abuse you went through. If those witnesses won’t testify, you can ask the judge to subpoena them. You do need to do this early to ensure that the subpoena is actionable.

Although it may seem drastic, a subpoena can help ensure that those witnesses come forward even if they get cold feet. The judge can penalize them, and you can postpone your case until those witnesses appear.

Your witness testimony is only the first piece of the puzzle. You can also include:

  • Medical reports
  • Police reports
  • Household objects that are broken
  • Pictures of your house in disarray
  • Photos of weapons used to threaten you
  • Diaries that document the abuse

Even if you don’t have witnesses or official reports, your testimony still counts as evidence. Your statement isn’t your “only” evidence. It is powerful.

As a result, you need to practice telling your story. Go through your calendar and practice telling the events in order. This not only allows you to focus on the relevant details, but it may help you remember new information that you may have previously blocked out.

You Can Sue for Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can occur in any relationship, whether personal or professional, particularly when the abuser has power. You don’t have to endure it – and you can sue for emotional abuse that falls under tort law.