WHAT CONSTITUTES A VALID CLAIM FOR INTENTIONAL INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS UNDER KANSAS LAW?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Roberts v. Saylor, 230 Kan. 289, 637 P.2d 1175 (1981).
This case addresses the following issue:
What constitutes a valid claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Kansas law?
When you hear “personal injury” case, you probably think of physical injuries: broken bones, concussions, bruises, etc. Though “the law has been slow to accept an interest in peace of mind,” Kansas has included a “personal injury” tort for severe emotional distress, without any physical injury, since 1974. Id. at 291-92. This case dealt with the contours of a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, roughly a decade after its initial recognition. Id. at 292. Ultimately, the court found that Plaintiff’s claim here failed for two reasons: the conduct complained of was not “extreme and outrageous” and the emotional distress Plaintiff experienced was not “so severe that no reasonable person should be expected to endure it.” Id. at 293.
This case arose out of a long, unpleasant relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant. Id. at 290. Plaintiff had a surgery performed by a surgeon, after which two silk sutures were accidentally left inside Plaintiff’s body. Id. Plaintiff sought treatment from Defendant, another surgeon. Id. Defendant successfully removed the sutures, but refused to testify in a medical malpractice action brought by Plaintiff against her first surgeon. Id. This ultimately led to a lawsuit (but not this lawsuit) by Plaintiff against Defendant, which quickly settled. Id. Several years later, Plaintiff was being prepped for a third, unrelated procedure by a third surgeon. Id. Defendant happened to be in the hospital, and noticed Plaintiff being transported to the pre-operation area. Id. Defendant leaned into Plaintiff and repeated told Plaintiff “I don’t like you, I wanted to tell you that before you went in there.” Id. at 291. Following this encounter, Plaintiff felt “nervous” and was “always upset about” the occurrence. Id. at 296.
The court began by noting that, in the eight years from the time the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress was recognized, it had been sparsely explored by Kansas courts. Id. at 292. What was well settled were the four elements of the action: (1) defendant must act intentionally or recklessly; (2) defendant’s conduct must be “extreme and outrageous”; (3) plaintiff suffers “extreme and severe” emotional distress; and (4) defendant’s outrageous conduct caused this extreme emotional distress. Id. This case asked when conduct is sufficiently “extreme and outrageous” and when is emotional distress sufficiently “extreme and severe.” Id.
Claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress are reserved for extreme misconduct by parties, not simply “trivialities or mere bad manners.” Id. at 293. What is sufficiently extreme is dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case, but it must be behavior that goes “beyond the bounds of decency” and would not be tolerated by society. Id. The court offered a simple-but-effective test for making this determination: if the facts of a case were recited to an average person, that person would exclaim “outrageous!” in response. Id.
As far as when emotional distress is severe enough to recover, that is a much trickier question. Id. at 294. If reasonable minds could differ about whether or not emotional distress was so severe and extreme as to be beyond what is reasonable to tolerate, the jury can rightfully find the distress sufficient. Id. Plaintiff must also suffer emotional harm that is to be expected under the circumstances; if the plaintiff has an unexpected and uncommonly severe reaction to defendant’s conduct, the defendant cannot be held liable. Id.
Looking to the facts of this case, the court found that Plaintiff’s claim failed on each issue. Id. at 296. First, Defendant’s conduct was not outrageous. Id. at 295. Defendant was free to “express an unflattering opinion in an angry manner,” and that was all that could be said of his actions in this case. Id. As for Plaintiff’s emotional distress, there wasn’t much to recognize there, either. Id. at 296. Nervousness and being upset are not emotions that “no reasonable person should be expected to endure.” Id. Instead, they are common reactions to criticisms such as those Defendant expressed in this case. Id. Thus, Plaintiff’s claim failed. Id.