If you have suffered injury through no fault of your own, or have in some way endured emotional distress as a result of someone else’s wrongdoing, you may to want to know if you can claim compensation for your suffering.

In this guide, we look at the law on suing for emotional distress, and what you can expect if you bring legal proceedings against someone for injury to feelings.

Suing for emotional distress

Emotional distress can be caused by an accident, an incidence of medical negligence or after an upsetting experience, such as being bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work. It could even be because you are being forced to live in unacceptable housing conditions, where your landlord has failed to carry out reasonable repairs, or where your holiday has been spoiled by things like noisy hotel repairs or substandard accommodation. In all these cases, this can take a significant toll on you, causing both upset and upheaval.

In addition to distressing feelings at the time and in the immediate aftermath, any sort of upsetting or traumatic incident, or series of events, can leave you suffering from anxiety, depression and fear. This can be in both the short and long-term. You may also experience physical symptoms, again at the time, but also on an ongoing basis, such as disturbed sleep, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, chest pains, neck or shoulder tension, headaches, nausea, stomach upsets, and even bowel or bladder control issues.

In a number of cases, where someone has either acted negligently, breached a legal duty owed to you or otherwise caused you mental harm, it may be possible for you to sue for emotional distress. This could be because you were injured in an accident that was someone else’s fault, such as a road traffic accident, where the other driver was to blame. It could also be an accident, like a slip or trip. In this case, you could potentially hold responsible the occupier of the building where the accident took place, or if your accident happened outdoors, it may be possible to hold the local council or landowner responsible.

If you are suffering from emotional distress due to a medical mistake, you may be able to hold your treatment provider responsible, either an NHS or private provider. Equally, when it comes to work-related bullying, harassment or discrimination, you could potentially hold your employer responsible. Even if the employer is not directly to blame for the conduct complained of, if they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or put a stop to this behaviour by other employees, they may be vicariously liable in the eyes of the law.

Finally, if you have experienced distress, discomfort and inconvenience as a result of either poor housing conditions where you rent your home in the UK, or a spoiled holiday, either in the UK or abroad, you may be able to sue your landlord, tour operator or travel agent.

Suing for psychological harm

If you have been involved in some sort of accident that was not your fault, or have suffered injury as a result of medical negligence, you may be entitled to claim compensation. In any case involving personal injury, a claim for physical injury will include compensation for what is described in legal terms as ‘pain, suffering and loss of amenity’. This inevitably includes an element of emotional distress, caused by the physical suffering from your injury.

In addition to any physical injury, if you are also suffering with psychological symptoms, any compensation will typically include an uplift to reflect this additional distress and trauma. For example, if you suffer a whiplash injury to your neck in a road traffic accident, but also suffer with flashbacks and nightmares about the accident, the judge may increase your award by several hundred pounds to reflect this separate set of symptoms. Equally, if you are suffering with anxiety and panic attacks about a misdiagnosis or a botched surgical procedure, you may receive a higher award of compensation than for the physical injury alone. A medical negligence claim will again take into consideration the emotional effect that your injury or illness has had on you, and the mental distress that you have suffered.

However, if you have suffered a recognisable psychiatric injury, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be entitled to an entirely separate award of compensation. You can even claim for a recognisable psychological or psychiatric disorder on its own, without having also suffered physical injury, provided there is clear medical evidence to prove this. For example, if you were in a road traffic accident where you did not suffer any bodily injuries, but the fear of the accident has caused you to suffer from an anxiety disorder or PTSD, you may be entitled to an award running into several thousand pounds.

Suing for injury to feelings

If you have been bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work, either by your employer or by someone else in the workplace, you may be able to take your employer to a tribunal. If your employer is directly responsible, or they did not adequately protect you, having reported incidents of unwanted conduct, you may be awarded compensation.

Discrimination can include things like being turned down for a promotion or training because you are transgender or pregnant, or any one of the other protected characteristics, like your age, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or any disability. Harassment is where you are subjected to unwanted conduct because of a protected characteristic, which violates your dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you at work. Harassment is therefore a form of discrimination.

If you have been unlawfully discriminated against or harassed you can claim for the hurt and emotional distress that this has caused you. In legal terms, this is called ‘injury to feelings’. This award is in addition to any financial loss suffered in consequence of being treated unfairly, such as a claim for loss of earnings, for example, if you have been dismissed for being gay. In cases where you develop a recognisable psychological disorder, such as an anxiety disorder or depression, and you can prove this with reference to expert medical evidence, you could also have a separate compensation claim for personal injury.

Finally, in the context of a discrimination claim, and where the employer’s conduct has been exceptionally bad, the employment tribunal may also make an order for ‘aggravated damages’. These awards are rare, but may apply where your employer has deliberately discriminated against you in blatant disregard for the law, or where their response to the claim has been especially unpleasant or aggressive, such as where your employer accuses you of lying about being disabled in the face of overwhelming medical evidence.

Suing for discomfort and inconvenience

If you are living in rented property, either through the council, a housing association or even a private landlord, and that property is in a severe state of disrepair, you may be able to seek an order for repairs to be carried out. As part of this claim, you may also be able to sue for the distress, discomfort and inconvenience of living in uncomfortable, unsightly and possibly even dangerous surroundings. This could be, for example, where a property is suffering from damp and, having been put on notice, the landlord has failed to remedy this.

In some cases, you may even have a separate but related claim for personal injury suffered as a result of any disrepair, such as asthma or respiratory problems caused by mould. However, as with any personal injury suffered, whether this be physical and/or psychological, this must be supported by the opinion of a suitable medical expert.

Can you sue for disappointment?

One of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to emotional distress is whether or not you can sue for disappointment in the context of a breach of contract claim.

Generally speaking, damages for mental distress or disappointment following a breach of contract will not be awarded to the innocent party under UK common law. The law provides that a contract-breaker is not usually liable for any “distress, frustration, anxiety, displeasure, vexation, tension or aggravation which their breach of contract may cause to the innocent party”. However, there are limited exceptions to this rule. This is where the very object of the contract is to provide pleasure, relaxation, peace of mind and enjoyment, for example, in the context of a spoiled package holiday or ocean cruise. In these cases, you can sue not only for any financial losses arising out of the failure on the part of the provider to meet the contractual terms and conditions, but for your distress and disappointment.

Importantly, a claim for distress and disappointment in this context should not be confused with any broader right to claim compensation for emotional distress in all breach of contract cases, or simply when suing for anything at all. The stress of litigation, of itself, is not something for which the courts will make an award of damages for distress.

How much is compensation for emotional distress?

In cases where a claim can be pursued for emotional distress, the value of this claim in terms of compensation can vary dramatically, depending on the circumstances:

Claims for personal injury

When claiming for personal injury, both physical and/or psychological, the court will make what is known as an award of general damages. This is compensation for pain, suffering and loss of amenity, including the impact on your social life, hobbies and family life. The amount of general damages will depend on the nature of your injury, how badly this has affected you and how long this is likely to last, where the more severe the injury and the less likely you are to recover, the higher the award. In the most severe cases of psychological trauma and PTSD this could run into six figures. When assessing the level of award, the court will turn to the guidance set out in the ‘Judicial College Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases’. This provides brackets for certain categories of injury to provide consistency between awards.

Claims for injury to feelings

When claiming for injury to feelings in the context of a discrimination or harassment claim, levels of compensation are split into three ‘Vento’ bands. These bands derive from the landmark case in which the Court of Appeal set out clear guidelines for employment tribunals to apply when assessing these types of awards, where the appropriate band will depend on the severity of the conduct in question. The lower band is currently set at £990 to £9,900 for less serious cases, typically for an isolated instance of discrimination; the middle band of £9,900 to £29,600 is for cases that do not merit an award in the upper band; and the upper band of £29,600 to £49,300 is for the most serious cases. This is where there has been a prolonged campaign of discrimination that has had an extremely profound effect on you.

Claims for distress, discomfort and inconvenience

In the context of claims for housing disrepair, as with any other claim for emotional distress, the award of damages will depend on the facts. In these cases, the court will have regard to the conditions in which you have been forced to live, how much this has impacted your quality of life, and whether you have suffered any physical or psychological symptoms because of this. Any evidence of personal injury may provide the basis for a separate award, but where injury has resulted, this will also suggest that the disrepair was especially serious. This is likely to result in a much higher award for distress, discomfort and inconvenience. In these types of claims, compensation can be between several hundred and thousands of pounds.

Claims for disappointment

In the context of a holiday claim, you will not only be awarded compensation for diminution in value of the holiday, ie; the difference in value between what you contracted for and what you actually received, but also the loss of enjoyment occasioned by the breach of contract. However, as with the other scenarios set out above, the level of award is always fact-dependant. The more serious the findings in relation to the ruined holiday and contractual breaches, the higher the award, where awards can easily run into thousands of pounds to reflect the level of disappointment.

Suing for emotional distress FAQs

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Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


Suing For Emotional Distress 1

Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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