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South Carolina Supreme Court Defines Standard for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Employment Claims

    Client Alerts
  • December 07, 2007

Recently, in Hansson v. Scalise Builders of South Carolina, the South Carolina Supreme Court set forth the standard required for a plaintiff to prove intentional infliction of emotional distress, a tort claim sometimes referred to as “outrage.”  The plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was based on allegations that his coworkers constantly ridiculed him with callous and vulgar remarks and gestures related to homosexuality.  In order to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must show:


(1)  the defendant intentionally or recklessly inflicted severe emotional distress, or was certain, or substantially certain, that such distress would result from his conduct;


(2)  the conduct was so extreme and outrageous so as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community;


(3)  the actions of the defendant caused plaintiff’s emotional distress; and


(4) the emotional distress suffered by plaintiff was severe such that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it.


The trial court granted the defendant-employer’s motion for summary judgment on all of the plaintiff’s claims.  In a split decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision as to Hansson’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.  The majority held that the plaintiff had demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the second (“extreme and outrageous”) element. 


The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and reinstated the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on Hansson’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The Court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to introduce sufficient evidence regarding all four elements of the tort.  On the fourth element, the Supreme Court found that Hansson had failed to produce sufficient evidence of emotional distress.  His alleged emotional damages rested on testimony that he lost sleep at night and that he visited a dentist who told him he appeared to be grinding his teeth in his sleep.  Even assuming that the alleged conduct was sufficiently “outrageous,” the Supreme Court held that Hansson’s passing references to fairly ordinary symptoms were insufficient to create a jury question on the damages element of his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.


This case supports the application of a heightened standard of proof for emotional distress claims in South Carolina.  It demonstrates that a plaintiff must do more than simply allege that he or she suffered emotional distress to overcome summary judgment.  The case also provides support for dismissing emotional distress claims where the plaintiff fails to present third party witness testimony or other corroborating evidence.