Neuroscience and Emotional Harm in Tort Law: Rethinking the American Approach to Free- Standing Emotional Distress Claims

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


This chapter proceeds as follows. Part I reviews the current American common law, as well as the draft Restatement (Third) proposals, concerning emotional distress claims. Mental distress claims have never been given equal status with other tort claims and this part discusses why this value judgement has occurred. Using studies of PTSD as an example, Part II 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. Part III examines English law and its threshold requirement of showing a diagnosable psychiatric illness. Drawing on these different lines of thinking, Part IV concludes that we should rethink the American approach to 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 injury. The chapter advances two potential legal applications: firstly, 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 secondly, 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLaw and Neuroscience
Subtitle of host publicationCurrent Legal Issues
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191725227
ISBN (Print)9780199599844
StatePublished - May 1 2011


  • American common law
  • Bodily injury
  • English law
  • Mental distress
  • Tort law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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