Get fair compensation for psychological harm caused by others. Learn what counts as emotional distress in personal injury claims.
Emotional distress, also called “mental anguish,” describes very real injuries suffered by victims due to the negligent acts of another. Most personal injury victims experience some type of emotional distress in varying degrees of severity.
Types of Emotional Distress You Can Claim for Compensation:
- General Pain and Suffering
- Anxiety Disorders After an Accident
- Panic Disorder or Panic Attacks
- Depression Suffered After an Injury
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)
Transitory emotional distress is part of most mild to moderate injury claims, and can be claimed without a specific diagnosis. When you’ve suffered severe emotional distress, resulting in anxiety or panic disorders, depression, or PTSD, your emotional distress damages should be supported with mental health records of diagnosis and treatment.
In most types of emotional distress claims, mental suffering is tied to bodily injury. Getting compensation for a psychological injury without related physical harm is possible, but it’s often more difficult, depending on your state’s personal injury laws.
Most insurance adjusters expect to pay a reasonable amount of “non-economic damages” to account for an accident victim’s pain and suffering, even when the claimant recovers in a few days from minor bumps, sprains, or bruises.
For minor to moderate injuries, like whiplash, simple fractures, cuts, or contusions, you can include common types of accident-related emotional distress in your personal injury case without a formal psychiatric diagnosis.
Examples of injury-related emotional distress:
- Frustration from the inability to manage stairs
- Distress because you can’t pick up a crying child
- Sadness over missing important holidays or events because of your injury
- Worry about missing school or work
- Embarrassment over scars or bandages
Your healthcare provider’s notes will back up your emotional distress claims. For instance, your doctor’s records will have notes about keeping you out of work or school, or limiting lifting, walking, or traveling.
Anxiety disorders create repeated episodes of intense fear, terror, or anxiety that are out of proportion to the actual situation at the time. Symptoms of anxiety disorder may include phobias and separation anxiety.
Anxiety disorders may develop after any kind of accident or emotional trauma. For example, anxiety might be triggered by sudden loud sounds, if the person was hurt in an explosion. A child involved in an accident may cling to their mother.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Trouble concentrating
- Stomach upset
- Excessive, uncontrolled worry
Any type of accident can result in anxiety disorder. However, medical experts recognize anxiety disorder as a significant complication of traumatic brain injuries.
Panic disorder or “panic attacks” are a form of anxiety with sudden, frightening symptoms. Panic attacks can occur seemingly out of the blue, with an unreasonable feeling of fear. The person suffering the attack may feel like they are dying.
A traumatic event, like a car accident, robbery, or sexual assault, may lead to panic disorders.
Panic attack symptoms include:
- Chest pains
- Difficulty breathing
- Intense terror
- Rapid pulse
- Shaking or trembling
Depression is a serious type of emotional suffering that isn’t limited to victims of catastrophic injuries. Victims of all types of injury may suffer depression. In fact, depression is the most frequent psychiatric diagnosis in the year after a minor injury requiring emergency care.
A number of factors can contribute to a deepening depression after a motor vehicle accident, slip and fall, or other incident that impacts your activities of daily living.
Pain may keep you from sleeping. You may feel guilt and frustration from being unable to care for young children or elderly parents. Worry over lost income can weigh on your mind. Then there is the shame and humiliation of needing someone to help with toileting and other personal care.
Warning signs of depression include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Pessimism and hopelessness
- Sleep problems
- Persistent sad feelings
- Suicidal thoughts
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. PTSD is a severe form of emotional distress that may develop weeks, months, or even a year or more after the triggering event.
First identified as a psychiatric wound affecting military personnel after battle, PTSD is now recognized as a mental health condition that may affect children and adults after any kind of accident, attack, or other traumatic event.
Symptoms of PTSD differ in type and intensity from one person to the next.
There are four categories of PTSD symptoms:
- Re-experiencing symptoms: Flashbacks, nightmares, and fearful thoughts when something reminds you of the trauma.
- Avoidance symptoms: Trying to avoid situations that remind you of the traumatic event. You might avoid getting in a car after a traffic accident.
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms: Feeling tense, jumpy, or constantly on the lookout for danger.
- Cognition and mood symptoms: Feeling blame, bad feelings about yourself, or other negative changes in beliefs and feelings.
Most claims for emotional distress compensation are in connection with pain and suffering secondary to a physical injury caused by another.
In specific, usually extreme circumstances, you can bring a separate claim against an at-fault party for mental suffering that’s not directly caused by physical injuries.
Injury victims and persons in the “zone of danger” who escape physical harm, and those who witness trauma to a loved one, may have a legal basis to seek compensation for negligent infliction of emotional distress from the at-fault party.
It’s easier for someone who has physical injuries to make a claim for emotional distress under the umbrella of pain and suffering. Individuals who witnessed and narrowly escaped harm have a higher threshold of proof.
Depending on state law, an uninjured person must prove:
- The at-fault party owed them a duty of care
- The at-fault party breached their duty, creating an imminent danger
- The claimant was “in the zone” of imminent danger
- The claimant has documented psychological harm
Examples: Non-Injured Victims of Negligent Emotional Distress
A group of children and adults are waiting at a bus stop. A speeding driver is looking at their phone, allowing their car to drift to the right. The speeding car jumps the curb, striking the group at the bus stop.
Two people, Ron Samuels and his 10-year-old daughter Sarah are killed. Three people are seriously injured, and two managed to jump out of the way at the last second.
The two people who managed to evade the collision were “in the zone” of imminent danger and experienced extreme fear for their safety, as well as horror from witnessing the bloody carnage caused by the negligent driver.
Some states allow claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress to be brought by family members who witnessed harm to a loved one, even though they may not have been in the “zone of danger.”
The Samuels family was planning a trip downtown to visit the museum. Mary Samuels popped into a convenience store near the bus stop to pick up some cold drinks for the trip. Ron and their daughter Sarah went ahead to the bus stop.
Mary left the store and was approaching the bus stop when she witnessed a speeding car jump the curb, plowing into her husband, daughter, and others waiting at the bus stop. She ran to the bleeding and broken bodies of her loved ones, screaming their names as she watched them die.
Mary has a strong case for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the distracted driver. She witnessed the violent wrongful deaths of her husband and daughter, leading to an emotional breakdown. Mary was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD.
Each state had its own statutes governing what counts as “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Most states require one or more of these criteria for IIED:
- The victim has evidence of severe emotional harm.
- The mental harm has resulted in physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or other symptoms.
- The at-fault party engaged in behavior that most people would consider shockingly outrageous, like secretly taking a video of a nude woman in her hotel room, then posting the images online.
- The outrageous conduct took place in a situation where the at-fault party had authority over the victim, like a police officer, landlord, creditor, or employer.
Case Example: Jury Awards $6 Million in Emotional Distress Case
Jeanette Ortiz was a general manager at Chipotle when she was wrongfully terminated after 19 years of service.
In January 2015, Ortiz was abruptly fired, after being accused of stealing $626 from the company safe. The company claimed there was video evidence of her taking the money but refused to let her see the film.
Ortiz believed the company fired her in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim when she injured her wrist on the job. At the time, she was up for a promotion that would have paid $100,000 per year.
Lawyers for Ortiz filed suit against Chipotle for wrongful termination. At trial, the company claimed the video and email evidence against Ortiz had been accidentally lost.
The jury found in favor of Ortiz, awarding $6 million for emotional distress and $1.97 million for loss of past and future wages.
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