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Spouses Can Sue the Other Spouse for Emotional Distress
On May 3, 2010 the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court in the case of Segal v. Lynch, indicated that there was no legal impediment in permitting one spouse to sue the other spouse for emotional distress.
The Court made it clear that the underlying conduct must be consistent with the definition of the alleged tort.
In the Segal v. Lynch case, for purposes of review, the Court accepted as fact that the mother had relocated to a different address in New Jersey, changed her telephone number, and terminated all contact and communication between the father and his children. The mother blocked all of the father’s e-mails and forbade the children from e-mailing or otherwise contacting their father. As a result, the father did not have any contact with his children for over three months. It is alleged that during this period of time the mother alienated the children against the father by telling the children false and spiteful things about their father.
Through a private investigator the father learned where the mother and children had relocated and that the children had been enrolled in the local school district under their mother’s surname.
While the Court dismissed the father’s complaint for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Court did announce that one spouse can sue the other spouse for emotional distress. However, the underlying conduct must be consistent with the definition of the alleged tort.
In the case of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the moving party must establish intentional and outrageous conduct by the other party, proximate cause, and severe distress. The moving party must prove that the other party acted intentionally or recklessly.
First, the moving party must prove that the other party intended both to do the act and to produce emotional distress. Liability will also be proven when the other party acts recklessly in deliberate disregard of a high degree of probability that emotional distress will follow.
Secondly, the other party’s conduct must be extreme and outrageous and must go beyond all possible bounds of decency and be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.
Thirdly, the other party’s actions must have been a proximate cause of the moving party’s emotional distress.
Fourthly, the emotional distress suffered by the moving party must be so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.
There are of course other requirements. The claim or cause of action as it is called for emotional distress must be brought under the Family Part. In order to avoid entangling the children in the emotionally destructive process of discovery, the reviewing court must evaluate and determine the legal ethicacy of this cause of action. It was made imperative that this determination be made by the Family Part at the preliminary stages of the litigation process. The courts have embodied the principle that issues pertaining to children will be decided in the best interests of the children. In the case of a lawsuit alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by alienating the children from the other parent, the children will be involved in the litigation. The children will be the key witness against the other parent. Clearly this action is directly contrary to acting in the best interest of the children. However, the Court had to weigh those principles against the right of a person to obtain compensation for injuries.
The Court in the Segal v. Lynch case concluded by leaving the door open for one spouse to sue another for emotional distress. The Appellate Division made it clear that the Appellate Division decides appeals based on legislative enactment or the evolution of New Jersey’s common law. The Appellate Division left it to the Supreme Court to extend or otherwise modify the principles which the Appellate Division outlined.