Define: Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress

Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress
Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress
Quick Summary of Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress

Negligent infliction of emotional distress refers to a legal claim that can be made when someone’s negligent actions cause severe emotional distress to another person. In order to successfully make this claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, that the breach caused the plaintiff’s emotional distress, and that the distress was severe and foreseeable. This type of claim is often made in cases involving car accidents, medical malpractice, or other situations where someone’s negligence has caused significant emotional harm.

Full Definition Of Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED) is a legal concept that permits individuals to claim compensation for emotional distress caused by the negligence of another party. While more prominently developed in American tort law, NIED has corresponding principles in British law under the umbrella of psychiatric injury claims. This overview examines the key aspects of NIED in the context of British law, focusing on its historical evolution, legal framework, significant case law, and contemporary issues.

Historical Evolution

The concept of NIED in British law has evolved significantly over the years, particularly through case law. Historically, the courts were reluctant to recognise claims for psychiatric injury due to concerns about opening the floodgates to a multitude of claims and the difficulty in proving such injuries. This stance began to shift in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with cases like Victorian Railways Commissioners v. Coultas (1888) and Dulieu v. White & Sons (1901).

In Dulieu v. White & Sons, the court for the first time acknowledged a claim for nervous shock (as it was then termed) resulting from fear for one’s own safety. This marked the beginning of judicial recognition of psychiatric injuries caused by negligence, setting the stage for further developments.

Legal Framework

The modern framework for claims involving NIED in British law primarily falls under the broader category of claims for psychiatric injury. The key elements for establishing a claim are:

  • Duty of Care: The claimant must establish that the defendant owed them a duty of care.
  • Breach of duty: The defendant must have breached that duty.
  • Causation: The breach must have caused the claimant’s psychiatric injury.
  • Foreseeability: The psychiatric injury must have been a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.

Primary and Secondary Victims

British law distinguishes between primary and secondary victims when it comes to claims for psychiatric injury.

  • Primary Victims: These are individuals directly involved in the incident caused by the defendant’s negligence who are either in the zone of physical danger or reasonably believed they were in danger. For example, in Page v Smith (1996), the House of Lords ruled that if physical injury was foreseeable, then psychiatric injury did not need to be separately foreseeable for a primary victim.
  • Secondary Victims: These individuals are not directly involved in the incident but suffer psychiatric injury due to witnessing or learning about it. The seminal case of Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police (1992) set out strict criteria for secondary victims, including:
    • Proximity of relationship to the primary victim.
    • Proximity in time and space to the incident or its immediate aftermath.
    • Means by which the psychiatric injury was caused (typically through direct perception rather than through media reports).

Significant Case Law

Several landmark cases have shaped the understanding and application of NIED in British law:

  • Dulieu v White & Sons (1901) Established the principle that claims for nervous shock could be made if the claimant feared for their own safety.
  • Hambrook v Stokes Bros (1925): Extended the principle to allow claims by individuals who feared for the safety of their loved ones.
  • McLoughlin v O’Brian (1983): Recognised the claim of a mother who suffered psychiatric injury upon seeing her family in hospital shortly after a car accident, broadening the scope of immediate aftermath.
  • Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police (1992): Introduced stringent controls on claims by secondary victims following the Hillsborough disaster, requiring a close relationship of love and affection, proximity to the incident, and direct perception of the incident.
  • Page v Smith (1996) It was clarified that for primary victims, the foreseeability of physical injury suffices to establish a claim for psychiatric injury, even if no physical harm occurs.

Contemporary Issues and Developments

The area of NIED in British law continues to evolve, with several contemporary issues and debates shaping its future:

  • Expanding the Definition of Proximity: There is ongoing debate about whether the criteria for proximity should be relaxed, particularly in light of technological advancements and changes in how people experience traumatic events (e.g., through live media broadcasts).
  • Recognising New Forms of Psychiatric Injury: As medical understanding of psychiatric conditions advances, courts may need to address claims involving newer forms of psychiatric injuries, such as complex PTSD or other stress-related disorders.
  • Impact of Societal Changes: Changes in societal norms and relationships may influence the courts’ interpretation of close relationships and the criteria for secondary victims.
  • Human Rights Considerations: The Human Rights Act 1998 may increasingly influence claims for psychiatric injury, particularly regarding the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, as conceptualised in British law, represents a nuanced and evolving area of tort law. Rooted in the broader category of psychiatric injury claims, NIED reflects the judicial balancing act between recognising legitimate claims for psychological harm and preventing a flood of litigation. The distinction between primary and secondary victims, along with the stringent criteria for establishing claims, underscores the cautious approach adopted by British courts.

As societal norms, medical understanding, and legal principles continue to evolve, so too will the jurisprudence surrounding NIED. Future developments will likely address contemporary issues such as technological impacts on proximity, recognition of new psychiatric conditions, and the influence of human rights law, ensuring that the law remains responsive to the complexities of modern life while maintaining fairness and justice.

This legal overview provides a comprehensive understanding of the principles, case law, and contemporary issues related to NIED in British law, highlighting its significance and ongoing evolution within the legal landscape.

Negligent Infliction Of Emotional Distress FAQ'S

NIED is a legal claim that allows a person to recover damages for emotional distress caused by the negligent actions of another person.

To establish a NIED claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care, breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff’s emotional distress.

Any negligent conduct that causes emotional distress can give rise to a NIED claim. Examples include car accidents, medical malpractice, and workplace accidents.

Yes, a person can recover damages for NIED even if they were not physically injured. Emotional distress can be just as damaging as physical injuries.

Yes, a bystander who witnesses a traumatic event can recover damages for NIED if they suffer emotional distress as a result.

The statute of limitations for a NIED claim varies by state, but it is typically two to three years from the date of the negligent act.

A person can recover damages for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other economic and non-economic losses.

Punitive damages are not typically awarded in NIED claims, as they are intended to punish the defendant for intentional or reckless conduct.

Yes, a person can still recover damages for NIED even if they were partially at fault for the accident. However, their damages may be reduced by their percentage of fault.

It is highly recommended that you consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer if you are considering pursuing a NIED claim. A lawyer can help you navigate the legal process and maximize your chances of recovering damages.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 6th June 2024.

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