Emotional Distress Claims, Dignitary Torts, and the Medical-Legal Fiction of Reasonable Sensitivity
Can individuals with a highly sensitive temperament recover in tort for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED)? In 2019, an article in the University of Memphis Law Review raised this question, referring to the "Highly Sensitive Person" (HSP) construct in psychology and asking whether the IIED tort’s 'reasonable person' standard discriminates against highly sensitive plaintiffs. Following up on that discussion, the present article considers how the law of IIED has historically treated plaintiffs with diagnosed psychiatric vulnerabilities that are either known or unknown to the defendant. The article also extends this discussion to the law's treatment of temperaments, such as high sensitivity, which are distinct from diagnosed psychiatric disorders; presents hypothetical scenarios with respect to undiagnosed but inferred or predicted vulnerabilities; and explores the history of the dignitary IIED tort and the origins of its reasonableness requirement. This discussion acknowledges that scientific advances can allow uniquely vulnerable plaintiffs to assert harm in new ways—while also (1) pointing out that scientific uncertainties regarding the mind and temperamental sensitivity persist today and (2) touching on clinical and criminal law approaches to intentionally inflicted harms, which can emphasize the defendant's conduct as opposed to the plaintiff’s subjective traits or experience for victim-protecting reasons. The purpose of raising these considerations is not to suggest particular reforms or strategies but, rather, to encourage readers to consider the potential impact of focusing on the plaintiff's biology on the one hand, or the defendant's conduct on the other, when deciding how to remedy intentionally inflicted mental harms.
Emotional Distress Claims, Dignitary Torts, and the Medical-Legal Fiction of Reasonable Sensitivity,
36 J.L. & Health
available at https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/jlh/vol36/iss2/5
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