Neuroscience and Emotional Harm in Tort Law: Rethinking the American Approach to Free-Standing Emotional Distress Claims
CURRENT LEGAL ISSUES, Oxford University Press, 2011
27 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2009 Last revised: 27 May 2014
Date Written: 2011
American tort law traditionally distinguishes between “physical” and “emotional” harm for purposes of liability, with emotional harm treated as a second class citizen. The customary view is that physical injury is more entitled to compensation because it is considered more objectively verifiable and perhaps more important. The current draft of the Restatement of the Law (Third) of Torts maintains this view. Even the name of the Restatement project itself - “Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm” - emphasizes this distinction. Advances in neuroscience suggest that the concern over verification may no longer be valid, and that the phenomena we call “emotional” harm has a physiological basis. Because of these early scientific advances, this may be an appropriate time to re-examine our assumptions about tort recovery for emotional harm.
Using studies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an example, this paper explores advances in neuroscience that have begun to shed light on the biological basis of the harm suffered when an individual is exposed to extreme stress. These advances underline the shrinking scientific distinction between physical and emotional harm. Drawing on these scientific developments, as well as on the British approach to emotional injury claims, the paper concludes that we should rethink the American treatment of emotional distress claims. In general, it proposes that we change our approach to account for advances in neuroscience, moving toward a more unified view of bodily and emotional injury. Two potential legal applications are advanced in this paper: (1) that science can provide empirical evidence of what it means to suffer emotional distress, thus helping to validate a claim that has always been subject to greater scrutiny; and (2) that this evidence may allow us to move away from the sharp distinction between how physical and emotional injuries are conceptualized, viewing both as valid types of harm with physiological origins.
Keywords: Tort, Emotional Distress, Neuroscience and Law
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