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Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Cyberbullying/Harassment in Maryland

We grew up with the old children's rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” More and more as gadgets and devices invade our lives do we realize that this adage could not be further from the truth. In the United States, online harassment and cyberbullying has infiltrated the lives of the young and old, in particular, young adults between the age of 18 to 29, and disproportionately women.

Cyberbullying and Harassment: The Emotional Impact

According to Pew Research Center’s study on online harassment and cyberbullying, 73% of all adult internet users have been harassed online. Under Pew’s study, harassment focuses on six behaviors:

  • Offensive name-calling,
  • Attempts to purposefully embarrass another,
  • Physical threatening,
  • Sexual harassment,
  • Harassment over an extended period of time, and
  • Stalking.

The study also acknowledges the extent to which this type of harassment can lead to emotional distress and fear by the victim; for more minor harassment like offensive name calling and purposeful embarrassment, 27% of those who experienced these forms of harassment felt that the experience was extremely or very upsetting. A larger majority of people felt that it was extremely or very upsetting when the harassment was more aggressive through physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking.

Maryland and the Tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In Maryland, the legislature has passed and is in the process of passing, laws that relate to harassment, cyber bullying, revenge porn, and malicious speech that could inflict serious emotional distress on the victim. Though Maryland does not permit for the recovery of damages for the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress, in extreme cases, the courts have provided monetary damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The tort claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress can be proven where the following elements are present:
  • There was conduct that was intentional or reckless that is demonstrated to be
  • Extreme and outrageous, where it is proven to be
  • Causally connected to the emotional distress suffered by the victim, and
  • The emotional distress is severe.

The most difficult aspects of proving intentional infliction of emotional distress is in proving that the conduct was “extreme and outrageous” which may be highly subjective and dependent on the victim. Additionally, it may be difficult to prove “severity” for emotional distress, but generally, where a victim attempts suicide as a result of the extreme and outrageous intentional or reckless conduct, this threshold has been seen to demonstrate “severity.”

Maryland’s Criminal Statute Against Online Harassment and Cyberbullying

Maryland’s answer to online harassment and cyberbullying for minors has many questioning the right of the maligner to his or her first amendment rights to free speech. The law criminally penalizes any type of malicious speech online that intentionally inflicts serious emotional distress on a minor, or where the speech results in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm against the minor. Though the Maryland law looks to save many minors from harassment and cyberbullying, it also may have the opposite effect: When a high school student discusses bad acts of her cheating ex-boyfriend on facebook to warn others of his betrayal, the ex-boyfriend might consider this harassment, something that causes him serious distress under the law. This type of content-based speech restriction would have a chilling effect on the right of this high-schooler (and others) to write the truth about what happened to her in fear that there could be retaliation.

Furthermore, the statute threshold to criminally penalize someone for malicious speech is lower than the requirement for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which requires the conduct to be extreme and outrageous, whereas the criminal penalties extend only to malicious speech, a lower bar.

Charles County, MD Personal Injury Lawyers that Fight for You

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress could lead to serious consequences like suicide if you or a loved one has been harassed online or cyber-bullied. If you or a loved one was emotionally distressed due to outrageous and extreme conduct, it is important to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney. Please call the Law Office of Robert R. Castro at (301) 804-2312 for a confidential consultation.

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