Getting hurt in an accident can take a heavy toll on your life. Injuries commonly cause physical pain and discomfort. And medical bills, unplanned expenses, and missed time at work can put you under heavy financial strain.
But for many personal injury victims, the most debilitating and long-lasting consequence of their trauma takes the form of emotional distress. The psychological impact of an accident can linger long after physical wounds heal, interfering with your mood, concentration, sleep, relationships, and ability to make day-to-day decisions.
Does a personal injury claim include financial compensation for emotional distress? The short answer is yes, but with conditions. Here’s an overview of emotional distress in personal injury cases and how an experienced personal injury lawyer can help you get money damages for the distress you have suffered.
Common Forms of Emotional Distress from a Personal Injury
Anyone can suffer from psychological harm after getting hurt in an accident.
That emotional distress can take many forms, commonly including:
- Post-traumatic stress (PTSD)
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed
- Feeling helpless, hopeless, or overwhelmed
- Irritation and anger
- Mood swings
- Sleep disruptions/insomnia
- Disordered eating
- Substance abuse
Personal injury-related emotional damages can last for months or even years. The resulting psychological harm can impact every aspect of a victim’s life, from work to friendships and day-to-day activities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with severe emotional distress are also more likely than others to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes.
Emotional Distress in Child Personal Injury Victims
A person of any age group can develop emotional distress after a traumatic event. But children are particularly vulnerable.
Telltale signs of personal injury-related emotional distress in children can include:
- Withdrawing from peers
- Trouble concentrating in school
- Not wanting to leave home
- Disruptiveness in the classroom or at home
- High-risk behaviors
- Decreased interest in schoolwork or activities
Unlike some adults, children often struggle to explain the feelings of emotional distress they experience. Adults also frequently blame signs of emotional distress on other causes, like peer pressure or the child’s innate characteristics.
Personal Injury Claims Usually Include Emotional Distress
The law generally recognizes that emotional distress following a personal injury deserves financial compensation. So if you suffered a personal injury because of someone else’s wrongful actions, your lawyer can seek monetary damages for your emotional distress.
Obtaining payment for personal injury-related emotional distress is not always a straightforward process. State laws vary in terms of when, how, and what amounts you can demand in payment for the emotional distress someone caused you. Importantly, your rights may depend on whether you suffered emotional distress tied to a physical injury or emotional distress as a stand-alone injury.
Claims for Emotional Distress Tied to a Physical Injury
The most common way to obtain financial compensation for emotional distress is by including it as a component of the economic and non-economic damages (a.k.a., pain and suffering) inflicted by a physical injury. For example, it is routine for car accident lawyers to demand money damages for the emotional harm that flowed from the physical injuries their client sustained in a crash. Courts throughout the country widely accept that a physical injury normally has a negative psychological impact for which injury victims can recover compensation.
But that doesn’t mean all financial awards in physical injury cases automatically include emotional distress damages. Experienced lawyers for personal injury victims will often collect and present evidence to detail the psychological harm their clients have suffered.
That evidence might include, for example, testimony by the victim and the victim’s family members describing changes in the victim’s mood and personality after suffering an injury, as well as descriptions of therapy and other treatments they have received.
Claims for Emotional Distress as a Stand-Alone Injury
Sometimes, however, all or nearly all of the harm caused by a trauma consists of emotional distress. In these cases, it’s not always possible to claim emotional distress as a component of the pain and suffering caused by a physical injury. Instead, personal injury lawyers must pursue claims for infliction of emotional distress as a stand-alone injury.
Proving a stand-alone emotional injury generally requires more thorough evidence of psychological harm than in cases where a victim has also suffered physical injuries. That evidence will often include testimony from mental health professionals with expertise in diagnosing and treating trauma-based mental health challenges.
The law recognizes two general claims for a stand-alone emotional distress injury: intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). All states recognize IIED as a valid claim. But the acceptance of NIED as a stand-alone claim varies from state to state and has evolved with the changing public perceptions of mental health issues.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
As its name suggests, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress arises from someone intentionally causing you psychological trauma. Many IIED claims stem from criminal conduct. For example, you may have a claim for IIED if someone stalked you, harassed you, or terrorized you by putting you in fear for your life or the life of your loved one.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
A claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, in contrast, arises when someone’s careless or reckless actions result in you suffering psychological harm without an accompanying physical injury. Many state laws limit NIED claims to circumstances where you witness a traumatic event caused by someone else’s negligence and either narrowly escape severe or fatal injury (a so-called zone of danger claim), or see a loved one suffer a serious injury (a so-called bystander claim).
In recent years, however, courts in some states have begun to expand the universe of NIED claims they recognize as valid. Some states, for example, may now permit NIED bystander claims to go forward even if you did not have a close relationship with the victim who suffered a physical injury.
Others may permit NIED claims that do not involve witnessing a traumatic event at all, such as a claim for the emotional distress a new mother suffered when she hears her baby was born healthy but instead has severe deformities.
Calculating Emotional Distress Damages
Historically, courts treated emotional distress as a type of harm that defied easy calculation. Determinations of emotional distress damages were frequently driven by gender bias, racial prejudice, and fundamental misunderstandings about mental health, resulting in unequal and insufficient awards. Even today, the subjective nature of comparing one person’s emotional distress to another’s can make calculating the money damages a person deserves somewhat difficult and reliant on educated guessing.
But increasing public and judicial acceptance of mental health as a medical issue, with identifiable costs for treatments and therapies, has also recently added a more concrete component to emotional distress damages. Nowadays, emotional distress damage calculations include both economic and non-economic components.
Economic Damages for Emotional Distress
Many types of emotional distress can be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. If, as a result of someone else’s wrongful actions, you suffer from a diagnosed psychological condition, there’s a good chance a skilled personal injury lawyer can seek financial compensation for the costs associated with getting mental health treatment, including therapy, medication, and hospitalization.
Emotional distress can also directly affect your ability to earn a living. If your mental health challenges prevent you from working, your lawyer may also seek compensation for your lost wages and future income as part of your emotional distress damages.
Calculating the economic damages you may receive for emotional distress is usually as straightforward as adding up the direct expenses and losses you have incurred so far in seeking treatment and/or missing work, and using those amounts to estimate any future financial impact of your emotional distress. Accordingly, save medical bills, statements, receipts, pay stubs, and other documentation of the economic harm emotional distress has caused you.
Non-Economic Damages for Emotional Distress
Even today, however, you cannot reduce all emotional distress to a medical diagnosis and a tally of care expenses and wage losses. The law also entitles you to financial compensation for the emotional anguish someone else’s dangerous decisions and actions forced you to endure. This suffering may not come with a price tag, but that doesn’t make it any less real or deserving of money damages.
Attorneys, courts, and insurers use various methods to calculate non-economic emotional distress damages, including:
- The multiplier method, which multiplies economic damages by a number to generate your emotional distress damages;
- The per diem method, in which the parties multiply a dollar value that reflects your daily emotional suffering by the likely timeframe in which that suffering will continue;
- The comparison method, which compares the nature and severity of your emotional distress to other, similar cases, and selects a similar amount.
- The jury method, which estimates how much money a reasonable jury would likely award you for your emotional suffering.
All of these calculations have shortcomings that an insurance company or defense lawyer could exploit to limit your damages. That is why you need an experienced personal injury lawyer with an established track record of achieving top-dollar verdicts and settlements in cases like yours that feature emotional distress damages, and who can fight for the best possible award in your case.
Protect Your Right to Emotional Distress Damages
The steps you take after a personal injury that includes emotional distress can affect your legal rights. Consider taking these steps to ensure you remain in the best possible position to secure maximum compensation.
Seek Appropriate Care
Always prioritize your well-being after any personal injury. Seek medical care, including mental health care, as soon as possible, and follow your doctor’s treatment plan as closely as possible. This protects your health first and foremost, but it also has other benefits. The records that healthcare providers keep of your care can serve as powerful evidence to support your emotional distress claim.
Do Not Trust Unsolicited Settlement Offers
The party responsible for harming you may carry insurance that covers your personal injury claim. If so, that party’s insurance company may reach out to you directly to offer you a quick settlement of that claim. Do not trust this offer.
Insurance companies sometimes seek to avoid full financial responsibility for your injuries and losses by tempting you with what seems like a lot of money. But in reality, offers made directly to you by an insurance company will often fall far short of the amount of money you deserve, especially if emotional distress plays a large role in your injury. It’s usually best to say “no, thanks” to unsolicited settlement offers and leave negotiations to a skilled personal injury lawyer who can represent your interests and advocate for maximum compensation.
Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer
As the victim of a personal injury, you may have the right to receive significant financial compensation for the emotional distress you have suffered. A skilled personal injury attorney can help you make the most of those rights and get you the money you need as you recover your physical and mental health.