During the course of my many, many, many years of formal schooling I’ve come across the full gamut of teachers. From the rare ones who go above and beyond to motivate and inspire young minds to the burnt-out ones who just couldn’t care less about the well-being of their students, and all the average ones in between (who’ve I’ve always suspected to have the most interesting of lives outside of school), I can safely say that I’ve seen them all. Well, actually it’s more accurate to say almost all anyway.
Apparently, I’ve been fortunate enough to never encounter the outwardly abusive kind of teachers who have been publicized in the news lately, you know the kind I’m talking about (don’t be thrown off by the site’s name, it’s just a blog). Nope, I’m just that fortunate as it seems all the hot teachers started getting teaching licenses after I left middle school, I’m so lucky… Just joking by the way. I’m well-aware that when a person is as young as some of the students in these cases, the damage caused by a sexual relationship with a trusted older teacher can brew a lot of misconstrued feelings about love that the student might not be old enough to comprehend fully, despite how awesome these relationships can be (joking again, please, I don’t want any angry emails).
Anyway, back to the point of this post. There are some teachers who can just be verbally abusive jerks to their students. The actions alleged to have been committed by the North Carolina teacher in the story I linked to in the first paragraph, if true, would safely qualify as being such a jerk. Supposedly the teacher had been singling out a female student from his class and calling her a “loser.” The student’s mother got the school’s principal to stop the name-calling for a while, but it returned and extended into the student’s graded assignments as well, where the teacher allegedly wrote “loser” on her returned assignments, and in some cases even deducting credit from the student due to her being loser. Now that’s just stepping over the line – call me what you want, but leave my grade alone! To be fair, some people have defended the teacher’s actions stating that it’s a method he uses to relate with his students, though none have come forward to state so publicly.
The reason I bring this story up is because it got me thinking about emotional distress. People have a misconception on how damage awards work for emotional distress, specifically that getting money for emotional distress is easy.
The standard for intentional infliction of emotional distress is that you simply must prove that the defendant actually intended to cause you emotional harm (meaning he or she did it on purpose). While this may seem like the easier standard to prove in this case, ask any attorney and you’ll find that proving someone acted intentionally isn’t as simple as it may seem. Any episode of Law and Order will tell you that.
The standard for negligent infliction of emotional distress is trickier, but in some sense easier since you won’t need to show the defendant intended to harm your emotions; just that he accidentally did so. One way to get a damage award under this standard is to be physically harmed by someone else’s actions or to be a close relative (meaning immediate family) present at the time the person you’re related to was physically harmed.
Essentially, proving emotional distress here hinges on whether you can show some form of physical harm. Therefore the absence of physical harm can spell the difference between getting an award for emotional distress or not. Of course these laws can vary from state to state; for instance, some jurisdictions will allow these types of damage awards if they find that a person suffered a “great emotional trauma,” which is even more ambiguous. In any case, this standard can be hard to prove as well. Therefore under this view of the law, despite how outrageous the alleged conduct of this teacher may be, an emotional distress award may not be given to the victim or her family. Why, you ask? Well, try to identify the physical harm suffered by the student or the parent. Can’t find any? It can be tough, but not necessarily impossible.
We all read the news and we know that chances are, in cases like these, once a story starts to gain some publicity, lawsuits are sure to follow shortly after. Not that I have an axe to grind, but as a student who had to suffer through many awful teachers, if these allegations are true, then I think these people deserve some sort of compensation for their pain. And that’s where a good lawyer comes in. Because even though the student may not seem to have suffered physically, perhaps the verbal assaults caused her anxiety or insomnia or any other manner of emotional distress that manifested itself as a physical harm or affliction. A skilled attorney will be able to ask the proper questions and conduct a proper investigation to ensure justice is served. It’s no surprise that personal injury cases consistently top the list of cases received by LegalMatch because most of the time legal laypersons just don’t know what to investigate.
See? Lawyers can have a purpose sometimes.