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Understanding Your Options When You Suffer Emotional Trauma in an Accident

The circumstances surrounding a personal injury case often lead to more than just physical injuries. Whether the injury resulted from a car accident, fall, medical malpractice or abuse, or workplace accident, the incident that caused the harm was likely to be traumatic to the victim in many respects.

In the long term, the effects of mental trauma often prove the most damaging. But how can you prove mental health trauma? How can you place a value on it? With mental illness so poorly understood in our society, understanding the effects of mental health trauma in personal injury cases can be a challenge.

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Jordan S. Levine

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Recovery for Non-Economic Damages

Personal injury attorneys often describe the types of compensation available to victims in injury lawsuits as falling into one of two categories. First, damage awards to cover economic losses compensate affected victims with a monetary value that can be calculated. Examples of financial losses include medical expenses and wages lost due to time off work.

Non-economic losses stem from the effects of an injury that are not easily quantifiable. This includes factors such as pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of favorite activities, loss of companionship, and mental or emotional anguish. For example, damages to compensate accident victims for mental health trauma are considered noneconomic or intangible damages. While the effects are very real and often very harmful, they can be challenging to prove and appraise.

The Connection Between Mental Illness and Mental Trauma

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a health condition that involves “significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior” when these changes lead to distress or cause problems with work activities or social function. By contrast, mental trauma is generally considered to consist of an emotional response to an event that threatens physical or emotional harm. For instance, someone may experience mental trauma after witnessing a horrific truck accident. Trauma can cause severe emotions and physical symptoms both at the time of the event and far into the future. In that way, trauma can lead to mental illness.

Can You Sue for Mental Health in a Personal Injury Case?

Lawmakers and courts recognize that harm to mental health is a very real injury that many plaintiffs suffer in personal injury cases. For that reason, in most personal injury lawsuits, the victim may seek compensation for mental or emotional anguish, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other forms of harm to their mental health.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

People who have experienced a shocking or frightening event sometimes develop a disorder doctors refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Often, these individuals feel intense feelings of stress or fear in situations where they are in no danger. For some, the symptoms of PTSD subside over time, while others continue to suffer for the rest of their lives.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Bad dreams and difficulty sleeping
  • Angry outbursts
  • Feelings of tension or fear
  • Trouble remembering details of the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks or the sensation of reliving the event
  • Loss of interest in life or activities
  • Distorted sensations of blame or guilt

Often, someone with PTSD will avoid places or objects that remind them of the original trauma. They may also try to avoid any thoughts they may associate with the traumatic event.

When children and teens experience trauma, PTSD symptoms may manifest differently than in adults. For example, young children may wet the bed or become clingy, while older children may act in destructive ways, show disrespect, or harbor fantasies of revenge.

How Do You Prove Mental Injury?

Proving mental injury or emotional anguish involves two components. First, your attorney must prove that your mental health injuries are real and establish the severity of those injuries. Additionally, your lawyer must demonstrate that the actions of the person you are suing caused those injuries.

Demonstrating the existence and severity of mental health injuries is not nearly as easy as proving physical injuries. Often witness testimony can prove persuasive. For example, your attorney might present witnesses who can testify to changes in personality such as anxiety or depression. Keeping a journal to record how an incident impacted your life can provide another means of proving the effects of mental trauma.

A personal injury attorney may also call upon expert witnesses to testify why the evidence shows that you are suffering from the effects of PTSD, mental anguish, or emotional distress. However, you must be prepared for the disclosure and discussion of certain mental health information.

Mental Effects Must Be Connected to Negligence

Like recovering compensation for a physical injury, recovering for mental trauma in a personal injury case requires showing that the mental or emotional harm was caused by the negligence, recklessness, or deliberate wrongdoing of another. Evidence to prove causation is essential in any personal injury case. Regardless of how severe mental injuries or illnesses turn out to be, if someone is not found to be responsible for causing the mental harm, then the victim will not be able to receive damages.

Can you Recover Compensation for Mental Trauma?

Once you prove your mental trauma and the causation of that trauma, then you can recover compensation for mental trauma. Of course, no amount of money will erase the effects or heal your mental and emotional wounds. However, compensation could help provide care, treatment, and offsetting factors. For instance, if you suffer extreme stress caused by mental trauma, monetary compensation could enable you to take time off work to rest or to find a job that does not exacerbate your symptoms.

How Much Compensation Do You Get for Mental Anguish?

Because mental anguish is a form of noneconomic loss, there is no set formula for calculating the value of a claim. Factors that could influence the amount of compensation received include:

  • The severity of the symptoms
  • The frequency of occurrence
  • The duration of symptoms
  • The type of diagnosis

The effectiveness with which a personal injury can present the loss can play a significant role in determining the amount awarded for mental anguish. When an attorney is able to get the judge or jury to empathize with the victim’s plight, the amount received can be considerably more substantial.

How Much Can You Sue for Emotional Trauma?

An experienced personal injury lawyer can determine a reasonable amount to seek for emotional trauma based on the type of injury and the circumstances of the case. Attorneys often review legal precedent to gauge an approximate value for various non-economic factors, including emotional trauma. When emotional trauma is tied to a physical effect such as a permanent deformity or disability, it may be possible to seek substantially more damages.

In many jurisdictions, the maximum recovery for non-economic losses is limited by statute. For instance, Colorado caps the amount awarded for noneconomic damages at $250,000 in most cases, although the court can award more in certain situations.

Mental Health Trauma in Personal Injury Cases is Subjective

Attorneys, judges, and insurance companies will look at previous case results and settlements to determine whether a victim should receive compensation for mental health trauma. But, in the end, the decision will primarily depend on the facts presented in that individual case. For that reason, the importance of collecting the best possible evidence to demonstrate causation and the extent of mental and physical injuries cannot be overstated.

Someone who feels they may have PTSD, mental anguish or emotional distress after an accident or medical malpractice should consult mental health professionals and an experienced personal injury attorney. Professional guidance can help pave the way toward recovery in a mental, physical, and financial sense.