• Expert Medical Evidence Mandatory on Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims
  • December 7, 2016 | Author: Michael J. Connolly
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Moosic Office
  • Oftentimes we see a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress or negligent infliction of emotional distress as an “add-on” count at the end of a plaintiff’s complaint. Sometimes these claims can be the result of a “kitchen sink” approach by an aggressive plaintiff’s lawyer, and, of course, there are times when such claims have merit. Defendants must be cognizant of how to approach these claims, as a dismissal of the claim under the proper circumstances is possible as the plaintiff/appellee in Gray v. Huntzinger, 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 488 (Pa.Super. Aug. 30, 2016), recently learned.

    First, the courts have made clear that expert medical evidence is not required for establishing claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Gray court was faced with a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress and solely addressed such claims in its August 30, 2016, opinion.

    Traditionally, to prove a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the following elements must be established: (1) the conduct must be extreme and outrageous; (2) it must be intentional or reckless; (3) it must cause emotional distress; and (4) that distress must be severe. Hooten v. Penna. College of Optometry, 601 F.Supp. 1155 (E.D.Pa.1984); Hoy v. Angelone, 691 A.2d 476, 482 (Pa.Super. 1997); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 46.

    At the trial level, Gray alleged assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress against his employer. The jury found no evidence of assault and battery, but they did make an award to Gray on the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. His employer appealed on a number of grounds, but the primary appellate claim was that Gray failed to provide expert medical evidence to support his claim for emotional distress and to establish that the distress was, in fact, severe.

    The Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of intentional infliction of emotional distress. For guidance, the court turned to the 35-year-old opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Kazatsky v. King David Memorial Park, Inc., 527 A.2d 988 (Pa. 1981).

    The Kazatsky court contrasted claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress with other intentional torts, such as assault, battery and false imprisonment, noting that the definition of “outrageousness” required for intentional infliction of emotional distress is subjective and nebulous. It stated that recovery on such claims is “highly circumscribed” and that objective proof of an injury is required.

    To this end, the court in Kazatsky concluded as follows:
    It is basic to tort law that an injury is an element to be proven. Given the advanced state of medical science, it is unwise and unnecessary to permit recovery to be predicated on an inference based on the defendant’s “outrageousness” without expert medical confirmation that the plaintiff actually suffered the claimed distress. Moreover, the requirement of some objective proof of severe emotional distress will not present an insurmountable obstacle to recovery. Those truly damaged should have little difficulty in procuring reliable testimony as to the nature and extent of their injuries. We therefore conclude that if section 46 of the Restatement is to be accepted in his Commonwealth, at the very least, existence of the alleged emotional distress must be supported by competent medical evidence. Id. at 995 (emphasis added).
    The Gray court reaffirmed the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Kazatsky. It distinguished the cases cited by Gray in his response to the appeal on the basis that those cases either dealt with negligent infliction of emotional distress, battery or other unrelated torts.

    The Gray opinion provides fresh perspective and a reminder to defendants in addressing intentional infliction of emotional distress claims on summary judgment. Since such claims rarely stand alone and are often accompanied by other allegations from plaintiffs, defense attorneys need to be aware when an opportunity presents itself to dispose of an additional, unnecessary claim going to a jury. If a plaintiff has simply “piled on” by including a count for intentional infliction of emotional distress, there is a fair chance plaintiff’s counsel may not follow through in providing the requisite level of medical evidence mandated by the law. The goal is always to force plaintiffs to meet their required burden of proof on any claim, and letting an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim proceed without sufficient scrutiny could have longer-term, unnecessary consequences.