In a landmark decision earlier this year, a New Jersey Appellate Court (Segal v. Lynch) held that a parent has a right to sue the other parent for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, under exceptional circumstances, where there is damage to the parent-child relationship caused by specific bad acts by the other parent.
In Segal, the trial court denied a money damage claim advanced by the father of two children against the mother as result of his perception of her poisoning the relationship between him and their children (claim of parental alienation).
The appellate court in Segal upheld the trial court’s decision denying the father’s claim for damages, but in so doing, opened the door for claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress for the loss of affection from children in the right setting.
In denying Segal’s claim, the appellate court held that it was not in the best interests of these children for one parent to sue the other for monetary damages, where the measure of damages would be the extent of the injury to the parent/child relationship. To do so would require the children to testify as to who said what, who did what to whom, and how the children felt about it. Hence, the appellate court held that the facts of this case did not rise to the level to warrant such an invasion into the relationship between the children and each parent and why the strain existed between the children and their father.
However, while saying that this case did not warrant such an invasion, the court opened the door to permit claims by one parent against the other for the intentional infliction of emotional distress in exceptional circumstances. In fact, the appellate court gave the following specific examples of what it believed were despicable and destructive type behavior that might give rise to a claim for damages:
"A case in which one parent falsely and intentionally accuses the other parent of sexually abusing the child is so despicable on its face and so destructive in its effect on the innocent parent that it cries out for compensation."
"The same can be said of cases involving parental abduction, where one parent, unlawfully and without the knowledge or consent of the other parent, removes the child to a foreign jurisdiction with the intent of frustrating any lawful means for returning the kidnapped child to the aggrieved parent. In such cases, sound public policy demands that the aggrieved parent and, by extension the innocent abducted child, be given compensation beyond just reunification."
While the appellate court denied Mr. Segal's claims, it also made it clear that going forward, the courtroom door is open to claims where one parent’s conduct is egregious in its impact on the other parent’s relationship with their children. Family court matters are incredibly fact sensitive, so it will be interesting to see how the case law flowing from this decision develops.
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