Dealing with Trauma After a Car Accident: Can You File a Claim for PTSD and Anxiety?

Learn when you’re entitled to compensation for mental trauma after a car accident. Trauma can be caused by your own injuries or witnessing injuries to a loved one.

Up to one-third of survivors of serious motor vehicle accidents experience some type of emotional trauma after the event.¹

Auto collisions can be emotionally devastating, even if you and your passengers don’t suffer serious physical injuries. The negative effects of that emotional trauma can appear in several forms, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Here we describe common mental health issues experienced after a car crash, what to do about your emotional distress, and how to get compensation for mental health treatment.

5 Steps for Handling Car Accident Trauma

In the days after an auto accident, you may start to experience symptoms of psychological distress, which can vary greatly among individuals. Here are some simple steps to help deal with any anxiety, stress, or other symptoms you may be experiencing:

1. Admit what you’re feeling

You gain nothing from acting tough. It takes strength to admit you may have a problem after a traumatic accident. You don’t have to carry around the fear and stress brought on by the collision. Seeking help shows courage.

2. Visit your primary care doctor

Your family doctor is a great place to start. Have an open and honest discussion about what you’re experiencing and how it’s impacting your life. Your doctor can refer you to an appropriate mental health provider so you can get back to your normal routine.

3. Consult with a mental health professional

Your doctor will likely refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. They will work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. Medication and psychotherapy are proven options to help heal after a traumatic event.

4. Follow the treatment plan

Just like you would follow a rehab plan for a physical injury, put equal effort into following the treatment plan developed by your mental health provider. Compliance is key.

5. Talk with your attorney

Don’t let uncertainty about the accident add to your stress and anxiety. Talk to a good personal injury attorney about what you need to do about the accident itself. Having a good attorney on your side will allow you to focus on healing your emotional issues.

Identifying Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common psychological consequences experienced by adults who survive a serious motor vehicle accident. Multiple studies indicate PTSD rates ranging from 6% to 45%. It can have significant and permanent outcomes if left untreated.

Symptoms of PTSD usually start soon after an event, but symptoms may occur, or you may not recognize them, for a year or more after an accident. Like the symptoms of a physical injury, symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is what mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health issues. The DSM includes multiple criteria for diagnosing PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Reliving memories of the traumatic event (flashbacks)
  • Having nightmares about the accident
  • Refusing to talk about what happened
  • Changes in your mood and approach to life
  • Changes in your physical or emotional reactions
  • Trouble sleeping
  • No memory of the crash
  • Developing depression or anxiety
  • Always feeling tense and stressed (hyperarousal)

This is not a complete list of PTSD symptoms, but gives you an idea of what to look for.

If you’re experiencing any of these issues following a collision – even if the symptoms don’t begin until several months afterward – seek help from a mental health professional.

PTSD in Children

If your child was involved in an auto accident, be aware of the signs of psychological trauma in children. Take time to observe and listen to your child. Just because you didn’t suffer anxiety following the accident, doesn’t mean that your children are okay.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks After an Accident

The trauma of a car wreck can also produce anxiety disorders, acute stress disorders, and panic attacks.

Almost everyone experiences some form of anxiety in stressful situations. It’s normal. But an anxiety disorder is different, characterized by intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition in the United States.

Panic attacks are an acute form of anxiety disorder. They come seemingly out of nowhere and can have a devastating impact on your life.

Symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sweating, trembling, or shaking
  • Choking sensation, chest pain, or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Fear of dying, loss of control, or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Numbness, chills, or hot flashes

Case Example: Man Develops Panic Disorder After a Minor Auto Accident

Mr. J is a 50-year-old married man with no previous history of panic disorder. While driving home after lunch one day, he was T-boned at an intersection. No one was hurt in the accident.

Despite the lack of injuries, in the weeks following the accident Mr. J began experiencing symptoms including high blood pressure, debilitating anxiety, insomnia, inability to work, and a feeling of hopelessness that he’d never regain his previous functioning level.

Mr. J reported anxiety attacks several times daily, lasting 15 to 20 minutes. These attacks included heart palpitations, chest pressure, shortness of breath, and trembling.

Five weeks after the accident, at the direction of his primary care doctor, Mr. J finally sought treatment. His symptoms were controlled with a combination of medications and supportive psychotherapy. Within two months, Mr. J was able to resume driving and returned to work full-time.

Treating Emotional Trauma from Car Accidents

The first step to recovering from trauma caused by a car accident is to recognize the problem and admit that you need treatment. Don’t delay.

Failure to understand the symptoms of PTSD can cause people to wait years before seeking help. At that point, the PTSD may be chronic and more difficult to treat.

Treatment for post-accident anxiety can include psychotherapy, medication, self-help, or some combination of these approaches.

Psychotherapy Treatment for PTSD and Anxiety

Psychotherapy is probably the most common treatment for PTSD and anxiety. Psychologists, therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals use various treatment methods depending on the patient’s symptoms and situation.

The National Center for PTSD estimates that 53% of people who receive trauma-focused psychotherapy will no longer have PTSD after three months. In contrast, only 9% of people who receive no treatment will recover after three months.

As with any mental or physical health issue, the best treatment for you will be determined by your doctor or mental health professional.

Psychotherapeutic approaches for treating trauma:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches a person how to change the thoughts and feelings they’ve been having since the traumatic event. This therapy often includes using learned coping strategies, such as breathing techniques as part of stress management.
  • Exposure Therapy helps you to deal with traumatic memories and feelings in a gradual way. It allows you to relive the traumatic event without suffering real injury.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) allows the brain to recover naturally from the traumatic event. It involves side-to-side eye movements, sounds, or taps, while simultaneously thinking about the traumatic event.

Medications Prescribed for Emotional Trauma

Some mental health issues experienced after an auto accident may need to be addressed with medication. PTSD and anxiety disorders are often treated with a class of medicines known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).

Examples of SSRIs include:

  • Zoloft
  • Paxil
  • Celexa
  • Lexapro
  • Prozac

As with all important medical decisions, using medication to treat post-accident anxiety or other symptoms must be made in full consultation with your doctor.

Do not self-medicate or take medication offered by friends or others. Any medication you take should be prescribed by your doctor and included as part of your overall treatment plan.

Compensation for Emotional Distress Claims

A significant question after an auto accident is if the at-fault driver’s insurance will pay for your therapy and mental health treatment. In all likelihood, it depends on whether you also received medical treatment for a physical injury.

The law in every state recognizes that an injured party can recover the costs associated with treating physical injuries caused by a car accident. All states also recognize an injured person’s right to recover compensation for pain and suffering that accompanied the physical injury.

Compensation for emotional distress is typically calculated based on the car accident victim’s medical expenses and lost wages.

There may be a problem, however, if your only injury is psychological. Insurance companies don’t often pay out claims of emotional distress without accompanying physical injuries. You will need strong evidence to get compensation.

Evidence of emotional distress includes:

  • Mental Health Records: A licensed counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or even your family physician can write a narrative with their professional evaluation of your mental condition. They can verify if you have been diagnosed with a psychological disorder.
  • Medication Records: Keep prescriptions for any medications you were ordered to take for your mental health symptoms. Try to get information describing the medicine, its uses, dosages, common side effects, etc.
  • Witness Statements: Ask your loved ones, friends, church pastor, employer, and co-workers for written statements describing in their own words how they’ve observed your emotional condition since the accident. They may have noticed you’ve been depressed or crying for seemingly no reason, or you appear fatigued or on-edge.
  • Accident Journal: Your detailed notes about the accident, your daily emotional difficulties, sleep problems, bad dreams, and other details of how the event has affected your daily life can be used as evidence of emotional distress.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Some states have personal injury laws that allow individuals to pursue compensation for emotional trauma without physical injuries under the doctrine of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED).

Most states’ criteria for NIED requires:

  • The at-fault driver was negligent
  • The claimant was in the “zone of danger”
  • The claimant suffered an emotional shock caused by the at-fault driver’s negligence
  • The claimant was closely related to an injured victim

The “average person” standard is applied in most, if not all, states. That is, “Would the average person be psychologically shocked or distressed in similar circumstances?

For example, you won’t get far claiming extreme duress arising from a minor fender-bender with no physical injuries, because the average person would not be psychologically damaged by such an event. However, the average person would suffer from seeing a loved one critically injured.

Case Example: Jury Awards $1 Million for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Tim Clancy was driving his Chevy S10 pickup truck home from Chicago, accompanied by his son Josh. Clancy was traveling State Road 231 when he fell asleep at the wheel, causing the truck to cross the center line.

Dianna and Robert Goad were traveling in the opposing lane, each riding separate motorcycles. Robert was able to swerve out of the way of the truck. Robert saw Dianna flying through the air, and a white flash that he later realized was several inches of exposed bone where his wife’s leg had been torn off in the crash.

Dianna landed in a water-filled ditch. In addition to the leg amputation, Dianna also suffered from a fractured pelvic bone, a fractured left elbow, and a lacerated spleen.

Robert quickly laid his bike down, spraining his knee. He ran to his wife and held her head above the water until paramedics arrived. He heard her screaming and saw the muscle and bone exposed at the site of her amputation. He watched her fade in and out of consciousness, and he believed she was going to die.

Through their attorneys, Dianna and Robert filed suit. Dianna suffered catastrophic and disabling injuries, and sought compensatory damages for her injuries, past and future lost income, and pain and suffering.

Robert did not seek compensation for any physical injuries he sustained in the accident. Rather, his claim was for negligent infliction of emotional distress, stemming from his involvement in the accident where he witnessed Dianna’s life-threatening injuries, and the resulting PTSD he suffers.

The jury awarded Dianna $10 million for injuries including the loss of her left leg, and Robert received $1 million for his claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. The award was upheld on appeal.

If you suffered emotional injuries, without corresponding physical injuries, seek the advice of an experienced personal injury lawyer. These cases are difficult to win, and you’ll need a good lawyer to get fair compensation.

An experienced attorney can guide you through the claim process, find out what insurance coverage you can pursue for compensation, and make sure your rights are protected if you have pre-existing mental health conditions.

Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation. Contact an attorney to discuss your claim, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Bobby Jenkins, Esq. is an experienced civil litigator with over 20 years’ experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. He is a member of the North Carolina State Bar and admitted to the U.S. District Court. Bobby has practiced extensively in the areas of auto accidents, medical malpractice, and wrongful death. He also teaches as... Read More >>