Understanding Claims Involving Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In August 2007, Dwight Phillips was dropping off his step-son, Joseph Shelvin, at school. The school’s principal, Louella Cook, noticed that Phillips’ vehicle was in the school’s bus-unloading area. After noticing Dwight’s vehicle, Phillips approached Dwight and informed him that he was unloading the child in the wrong area. She then directed him to the car drop-off area. According to Cook, Dwight then began screaming at Cook. During this screaming, Dwight told Cook that he would return and “get her.” Cook contacted the police because she feared for her safety as well as for the safety of the staff and visitors of the school.

When the police arrived, the investigating officer interviewed both Cook and Dwight. According to the officer, Dwight admitted that he threatened Cook and Dwight was subsequently arrested for disturbing the peace by threats. Sometime prior to this incident, a bus driver reported that during a bus stop, a man, who was talking loudly, got on the bus and refused to get off. Cook and her staff questioned the students who were on the bus during the incident including Joseph Shelvin, Dwight Phillips’ step-son. After speaking with the students, Cook and her staff learned that the man was Dwight Phillips. After Phillips’ arrest, Shelvin, Phillips and his wife Joy filed suit against the Lafayette Parish School Board and Dr. Louella Cook. On appeal to the fifteenth judicial district court, the court only examined the claims against the Board and Cook for Dwight Phillips’ defamation and Shelvin’s emotional distress.

To successfully assert a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), the person bringing such a claim must show an (1) intent to cause (2) severe emotional distress by (3) extreme and outrageous conduct. According to Louisiana courts, “[t]he conduct must be so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Because tortious or illegal conduct does not rise to the level of extreme and outrageous, “[t]he distress suffered must be such that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Essentially, one cannot be liable for IIED for “mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities.” In this case, the Phillip’s and Shelvin failed to successfully assert a claim for IIED. There was no evidence that Cook’s conduct was extreme and outrageous or that she intended to cause Selvin severe emotional distress. In relation to the “drop-off” incident, Cook never spoke to Shelvin about it. When Shelvin and the other students were questioned about the incident where the man refused to get off the bus, Cook was never alone with any of the students. Moreover, none of the interviews lasted over ten minutes.

Louisiana courts have consistently held that IIED claims must deal with extremely outrageous conduct and not just offensive behavior. Thus, it is important for persons interested in pursuing IIED to an attorney to evaluate the viability of such claims and examine the nature of the complained of conduct.

The attorneys at Berniard Law Firm are experienced with handling IIED claims and successfully advocating for the rights of their clients.