Can I Sue a Family Member for Emotional Distress?

A woman holding her face in her hands while in emotional distress.

Rifts among family members occur. But what do you do when that rift turns into repetitive behaviors and actions that cause emotional distress? Under U.S. law, individuals have the right to seek compensation if their mental and physical well-being has been compromised, even if the compromise was the result of a loved one’s actions. 

If you are considering pursuing an emotional distress lawsuit against a family member, there are important factors and elements of an emotional distress claim you should know about. At Jack Bernstein, Injury Attorneys, our team will help you understand your options as you pursue the damages you deserve. 

Contact us today to schedule your free case evaluation.

What Is Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress is a legal concept used to describe a type of mental anguish or suffering that an individual feels at the hands of another. U.S. courts recognize emotional distress as a type of damage that can be awarded to a plaintiff via a civil lawsuit. Learn more about what you can sue someone for

Emotional distress damages fall under the legal umbrella of pain and suffering — another legal concept that is classified as non-economic damages. Unlike economic damages, non-economic damages are subjective, non-monetary losses. Because of this, it can be harder to prove emotional distress. Having ample evidence to support your claim is key to the success of your lawsuit. 

Long-Term Impact of Emotional Distress 

Emotional distress can have a profound impact on an individual’s life, especially if the incident they experienced was traumatic. The emotional distress of an incident can lead to mental health struggles, including: 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic attack episodes
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders

Seeking medical attention, including mental health care, after an incident can help you establish critical evidence that proves your claims of emotional distress.

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress Without Physical Injuries?

Individuals who seek out emotional distress damages are typically required to have suffered from physical harm as well. This is often the case with personal injury lawsuits. 

Emotional distress damages available in a personal injury case are usually supported by the economic damages a plaintiff sustains. However, depending on the claim and the proof available, some individuals may have a strong enough lawsuit to seek out emotional distress damages without having suffered physical harm. 

For example, in some cases where a plaintiff has suffered emotional harm because another individual defamed them, the plaintiff can be successful if they show substantial proof that emotional distress was caused. 

Types of Emotional Distress

On a broad and general level, there are three types of emotional distress an individual can seek when filing a lawsuit claiming emotional damage. These types of emotional distress include the following: 

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

This type of emotional distress claim is brought on by the negligence of another individual who unintentionally caused harm to a plaintiff. The person who is suffering emotional distress doesn’t necessarily have to be physically harmed by the defendant’s negligence. However, if they can prove that emotional harm was caused, they may be successful in their claim. 

For example, a driver who witnessed a fatal commercial truck accident with another motorist may be left feeling mentally traumatized, suffering from symptoms associated with PTSD, depression, and other mental health challenges. They may have grounds for emotional distress damages if they are able to prove the negligence of the other party who caused them the emotional distress. 

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

This type of emotional distress claim is brought on when an individual intentionally or recklessly tries to inflict emotional harm on an individual. Cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress can be wide-ranging but include any situation in which an individual is suffering mental anguish or trauma because of the deliberate behavior of another.

An example of this would be a female adult who is consistently being stalked by a former partner. Certain behaviors — verbal assaults, threatening behavior, and acts of violence aimed at the female, etc. — can be grounds for proving that emotional distress is being caused. 

Wrongful Death

The wrongful death of a loved one can bring with it profound pain and suffering. Although the surviving family members did not suffer a physical injury, they have the right to bring forward a claim against the negligent party that caused their loved one’s death. The emotional distress a family member will often suffer after the loss of their loved one includes but is not limited to: 

  • Loss of consortium (the loss of the companionship provided by your loved one when they were alive)
  • Pain and suffering, especially if the death happened in a traumatic manner
  • Depression
  • Grief

Can I Sue a Family Member for Emotional Distress?

Yes, if a family member’s actions have caused you emotional distress in a manner that has significantly impacted your life, you may be able to sue them for the emotional distress you are suffering or have suffered.

It’s important to remember that the threshold for pursuing a successful emotional distress claim is much higher than with a case that has resulted in a physical injury. This is because proving emotional distress is subjective. However, with the right evidence and legal guidance, you may be able to pursue damages for the emotional distress you believe you are entitled to. 

How To File an Emotional Distress Claim Against a Loved One

The process of filing an emotional distress claim is very similar to filing any other legal claim. Knowing how to navigate the process and what to expect can help you prepare a sound case for the outcome you’re seeking. Here’s what you need to know:

Consult an Attorney

Whether you are convinced you have a case or are still looking for legal guidance, it is important to consult an attorney. An attorney will provide you with the legal insight you need to determine your legal rights and options. 

Collect Evidence

An attorney will help you collect critical evidence to prove your claims. The evidence collection process will look different from case to case, but most will tap into the insight of trained medical professionals. The following can be used as evidence to help you build a case and pursue the damages you may feel you’re entitled to: 

  • Witness statements about the incident, especially if the incident was traumatic
  • Invoices for mental health services, including counseling and therapy sessions
  • Statements from mental health professionals who have helped you navigate the emotional distress you’ve been experiencing

Draft and File the Complaint

Once all the facts are established in your case, an attorney will help you draft your complaint. Next, your attorney will file your complaint with the proper court.  


Discover is the legal process of gathering the evidence you need to prove your claims. The discovery process also involves sharing the evidence your legal team has with the other party’s legal team. An attorney will ensure the discovery process is executed correctly and thoroughly so that you have the strongest case possible. 

Negotiating a Settlement

An overwhelming majority of personal injury lawsuits are resolved through settlement agreements. Attorneys are skilled negotiators who will ensure you get the settlement you deserve.

Represent You in Trial

If settlement negotiations prove unfruitful, the personal injury attorneys at Jack Bernstein, Injury Attorneys, are prepared to take your case to trial. Our attorneys know the ins and outs of Tampa courts and are ready to represent you in front of a judge or jury.

How To Prove Emotional Distress

Proving that emotional distress took place can be a difficult legal claim to support. As with any lawsuit, working with an experienced lawyer who can help you collect pertinent evidence is one of the best ways to seek success in your case. 

When you are proving you have suffered emotional distress, including mental suffering and trauma, there are many different forms of evidence you can and should collect. Important elements you should include in your case are the following: 

Physical Injuries

Being able to prove you have suffered mental and emotional distress can be easier done when you have proof of physical injuries. When proving your physical injuries, make it a point to collect photographs of the injuries, documentation including invoicing of any doctor or medical visits you had to endure, testimony from a physician, and other evidence pertaining to the physical injury caused by the named defendant. 


Time is on your side when filing an emotional distress claim. The longer the alleged behavior that caused the emotional distress occurs, the more successful your case may be. 

Medical Documentation

Collecting evidence that shows any medical treatment you received as a result of your emotional distress can be helpful to your claim. Typical types of documentation you’ll want to include are reports from any psychologist, therapist, or other physicians who offered you treatment for your emotional trauma.

The Severity of the Incident

Unlike other objective claims, proving emotional distress can be entirely subjective. For this reason, the severity of the incident is incredibly important. The more disruptive, extreme, and life-changing the event was, the more likely you will be successful in your claim. 

Other Documents and Evidence

Text messages are admissible in court in Florida and can help show evidence of emotional distress. Witness testimony of individuals who observed the behavior that caused the emotional distress can also be used as evidence. Surveillance footage, police reports, and other elements that can show a defendant’s behaviors that contributed to your mental anguish are also essential to consider.  

Calculating Emotional Distress Damages

Miami, Florida, courts do not have a tort law regarding how emotional damages are calculated; however, two popular methods employed include the multiplier and per diem methods.

  • Multiplier method: The total of your economic damages is used to calculate the value of your pain and suffering damages. A multiplier — a number between 1.5 and five is assigned based on the circumstances of your case. The more severe your injury, the higher the multiplier. 
  • Per diem: This method is used to calculate daily damages a victim is owed because of their injury 

If You Have Suffered Emotional Distress, Let Jack Bernstein, Injury Attorneys, Fight for You

A personal injury attorney discussing a contract with two clients. On his desk is a stack of books, the scales of justice, and a gavel.

If you’re seeking to file an emotional distress lawsuit, working with an attorney experienced in the field can be beneficial to your case. The collection of evidence is essential in any lawsuit seeking emotional distress damages. Work with a team with a proven track record of collecting such evidence. With over 40 years of experience, the law office of Jack Bernstein, Injury Attorneys, is ready to help you collect critical evidence and documentation so you receive the compensation you deserve.