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Sticks and stones: proving infliction of mental distress.

I. Intentional Infliction

Broken bones are not the only type of injury in an assault. Emotional harms can and do often occur. There’s a very long and fairly complicated legal history about what actually makes up an injury. It’s really only been in the last one hundred years that courts (and most people) have recognized mental suffering can be very independent of any obvious physical harm. The immediate benefit of talking to an experienced Charlotte personal injury attorney is to be aware of the many types of mental or emotional harm that may or may not occur, alongside threatened or actual physical harm.

II. A Dickens of a Beating

It actually took several years for this man to make up his mind to go public with what happened to him. Part of the problem may have been that he regretted his own conduct. He was also humiliated by the beating and ridicule. It’s hard to say from the court proceedings exactly what his motivation to come forward was. The important thing is that a Charlotte personal injury attorney decided to take his case, based in part on the fact that the beating had long lasting consequences for the man’s mental health.

At the time that the troubles began, Mr. Dickens was about 31 years old. He made a choice to begin a relationship, partly fueled by alcohol and marijuana, and included sex with a 17-year-old girl. The parents of the teenage girl decided to seek vengeance. They led him by trickery into a rural part of Johnston County. The father (Earl) of the girl, after getting to the intended ambuscade, identified himself to Dickens, and then yelled out for his wife to enter the scene. Earl’s wife, Ann, stepped out so that Dickens could see her. Ann shouted that she “didn’t want to see that S*B.” Evidence by Dickens’s personal injury attorney later indicated that Ann did actually leave the vicinity. Earl, however, pointed a handgun between Dickens’s eyes: Earl then also shouted “y’all come on out.” At that time, four unidentified men, wearing ski masks, apparently came up behind Dickens.

Evidence reconstructed by Dickens’s personal injury attorney later indicated each masked man had a nightstick. They beat him badly, and Dickens seems to have lost track of the proceedings for a while. He awoke later, handcuffed to a piece of farm machinery. As Dickens regained a greater measure of consciousness, he next became aware that the men were still beating him with nightsticks. Earl interrupted the beating and brandished a knife. Earl began slashing Dickens’s hair, as well as threatening him with castration. The ordeal continued for another two hours. Earl repeatedly asked his associates “to vote” if Dickens should be killed or castrated.

III.   Out of the dark... a Charlotte personal injury attorney...

...began working with Dickens some years later. It took almost 3 years for Dickens to come to terms with a need to act, with legal help from a personal injury attorney. The case developed by the Charlotte personal injury attorney named specific physical manifestations of Dickens’s symptoms: commonly resulting characteristics, studies say, of intentionally inflicted mental distress. Sleeplessness. Diarrhea. Then there were the symptoms that were directly associated with it being night during the assault: an inability to deal with strangers, or darkness, or keep a steady job. Dickens described how he was now afraid to sleep or go out in the dark.

Decades ago, any recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress required physical symptoms. The issue of what physical harm occurred remains important today, to help ascertain what damages are available. In this particular case, the Charlotte personal injury attorney also had to face a question about the statute of limitations. The assault, if it had been raised within a year, would’ve been within a statute of limitations. Since almost three years had passed, the personal injury attorney had to establish whether or not the statue of limitations would still allow for a separate suit for emotional infliction.

IV.  Either, Or

The Supreme Court agreed with the Charlotte personal injury attorney, that the key was whether or not the case was “entirely grounded in assault” or not. If a separate case could be made for intentional infliction of emotional distress, then the one-year statute of limitations would not keep Dickens from getting his day in court. The statute of limitations for emotional distress was three years. The trial court had dismissed the case by Dickens, saying that the judgment could “support only a claim for assault and battery.”

First, the Charlotte personal injury attorney successfully established that the tort of intentional infliction of mental distress is recognized in the state of north carolina. Our courts have very often used language such as willful, calculated, or purposeful to allow for intentional infliction as a separate suit from assault. If the result is great mental anguish, and sometimes even anxiety, victims are now often allowed to bring suit for emotional distress.

Modern law has thus done away with some elements of requiring physical injury. More accurately, courts began to recognize some broad interpretation as to what that physical injury was. By the time the Dickens case had reached the Supreme Court, that court was using even broader terms for defining harm or injury, beyond the physical. For example, one Supreme Court decision (Kimberly) noted that the “nervous system” itself, especially in delicately adjusted people, may be made emotionally “out of tune.” This reflects, and expanded to the emotional, a traditional tort theory that a perpetrator will “take their victim where they find them.”

The key in this case was the personal injury attorney’s strong evidence that willful and wanton wrongs can cause mental distress. More surprisingly, the court went even further, and noted that even injured “feelings,” may sometimes be characterized as mental suffering. Most importantly, the court recognized that the intention of causing mental distress set Dickens’s case into this special category of liability even without the time-barred physical assault.

The Charlotte personal injury attorney had also succeeded in defeating one of the defenses used by Earl. It didn’t matter whether or not Dickens’s emotional response was reasonably foreseeable. The tort itself was meant to cause great emotional distress. There was almost no doubt whatsoever that the attackers desired exactly the greatest possible types of emotional harm as a response.

Conclusions:   

The success of the Charlotte personal injury attorney in this case included successfully distinguishing past cases involving fright.  Those cases still require some type of physical harm. The willfulness in this case went beyond a mere case of a fright night. For example, being frightened by a whistle being blown, without actual physical harm accompanying it, would probably not be recognized as a separate cause of action in this sort of case.

If you, a family member or a loved one have questions about any assault of emotional injury, please contact us.  This is especially important if you have been unsuccessful in dealing with the emotional harm of a past assault. You will speak with an experienced Charlotte personal injury attorney, who can best answer your questions about how your rights can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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