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Emotional Distress Compensation

In most – if not all – personal injury cases, the complaint will allege that the plaintiff suffered “severe emotional distress” and “mental anguish” resulting from the negligence or wrongful conduct of the defendant. In most personal injury cases, damages for pain and suffering will be significantly greater than economic damages for such things as medical bills and lost wages.

Severe emotional distress and mental anguish can exist even when physical injuries are minor. Psychological damages can be far greater in the long term than the physical injuries. An example of this is a case in which a father and his 16-year-old daughter went out for a drive, with the girl’s 15-year-old cousin in the back seat. They were involved in a horrific accident in which the father and his daughter were seriously injured, but the 15-year-old cousin was uninjured.

After six months, the father and daughter were recovering nicely from their injuries and starting to lead normal lives again. Shortly after the accident, the 15-year-old cousin, however, developed a deep fear of riding in an automobile. Eventually the girl was unable to ride in any kind of vehicle without severe anxiety, and developed a fear of leaving the house, a condition known as agoraphobia. To overcome her fears, the girl required intensive and lengthy psychotherapy, as well as psychoactive drugs.

Psychological trauma - accident injury

Common Conditions

Here are some common psychological conditions (i.e., emotional distress) that can arise from being the victim of another person’s negligence:

  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arising from, for example, a violent automobile or bus crash or a blazing fire that jeopardized the victim’s life. While PTSD is often associated with a person who was in military combat (“shell shock” after World War I, “battle fatigue” after World War II, and PTSD after the Vietnam war), the disorder applies to any extreme traumatic event involving direct personal experience involving actual or threatened death or serious injury, such as a severe automobile accident.
  •  Major depression: The victim may become depressed because of being unable to do the things they did before the incident, feel sluggish and fatigued most of the time, unable to gain pleasure out of things they once enjoyed, and may even become suicidal. Antidepressant medication and psychotherapy will be necessary to improve the plaintiff’s mood. In some cases – especially where the plaintiff poses a threat of suicide – hospitalization and around-the-clock supervision may be required.
  • Anxiety disorder: The victim may be on “high alert” for any type of accident or injury and in a constant state of worry and anticipation that something bad is going to happen.
  • Panic disorder: The victim may suffer panic attacks, a severe mental and physical condition in which the victim’s heart speeds up, and s/he is unable to breathe normally, or may feel a tightening or pain in the chest. The victim may believe s/he is having a heart attack, is going to faint, lose control, or “go crazy.” Panic attacks seem to “come out of the blue,” and put the person in an extreme state of fear. Panic disorder may stop the victim from enjoying activities and become housebound (agoraphobic).

Is It Recoverable?

Serious, or severe, emotional distress means emotional distress of such substantial quantity or enduring quality that no reasonable person in a civilized society should be expected to endure it. It may consist of highly unpleasant mental reactions such as fright, grief, horror, loss of enjoyment of life, depression, humiliation, nervousness, anxiety, embarrassment, anger, worry, or indignity. It may manifest in physical illness such as nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Any of these conditions may demonstrate that a person’s emotional distress is neither fleeting nor insignificant.

In What Amounts?

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that general compensatory damages for emotional distress are not financially measurable, and there is little in legal authority to guide it. As the court explained, ” The chief reliance for reaching reasonable results in attempting to value suffering in terms of money must be the restraint and common sense of the jury.”

The plaintiff’s own testimony, and the testimony of the plaintiff’s spouse, children, parents, close friends, and co-workers, can establish non-economic damages. However, when the plaintiff’s pain and suffering are especially severe, the testimony of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional may be extremely helpful for the jury to understand the extent of the plaintiff’s pain and suffering and its financial and emotional toll on the plaintiff and result in a larger award.

The content on this page was adapted from the article, “Maximizing Damages for Emotional Distress,” written by TorkLaw attorneys Allen P. Wilkinson and Reza Torkzadeh for Consumer Attorneys of California’s January 2011 edition of Forum magazine.