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Womack v. Eldridge

From lawbrain.com

Womack v. Eldridge, 210 S.E.2d 145 (Va. 1974), was a tort law case that discussed liability for emotional distress, even absent physical injury.

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Contents

Summary of Case Facts

Womack, the plaintiff, had his picture taken by the defendant, Eldridge, a private investigator. The defendant misrepresented herself in taking the plaintiff’s photograph. The defendant then used the photograph in connection with a with a child molestation case (in which the plaintiff was completely uninvolved), as part of an unrelated suspect’s defense. The photograph was shown in court, and, after the prosecutor questioned as to the identity of the man in the photograph, the plaintiff was forced to testify in court. As a result of being forced to attend the proceedings and testify, the plaintiff claimed that he suffered great emotional distress, such as sleeplessness and anxiety. The plaintiff sued the defendant for compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional distress caused due to the defendant’s acts toward him. The jury awarded the plaintiff $45,000, but the trial court set aside the verdict on the ground that no recovery could be had for emotional distress when no physical injury was involved.

Issue

Must physical injury or bodily harm have occurred to create liability (and subsequent award) for emotional distress?

Holding and Law

No. Liability for emotional distress may exist absent any physical injury or bodily harm.

The court went on to say, “that a cause of action will lie for emotional distress, unaccompanied by physical injury, provided four elements are shown:"

"One, the wrongdoer's conduct was intentional or reckless. This element is satisfied where the wrongdoer had the specific purpose of inflicting emotional distress or where he intended his specific conduct and knew or should have known that emotional distress would likely result.”

“Two, the conduct was outrageous and intolerable in that it offends against the generally accepted standards of decency and morality. This requirement is aimed at limiting frivolous suits and avoiding litigation in situations where only bad manners and mere hurt feelings are involved.”

“Three, there was a causal connection between the wrongdoer's conduct and the emotional distress.”

“Four, the emotional distress was severe.”

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