Proving PTSD Damages in a Personal Injury Case

After a particularly traumatic accident, you may suffer from symptoms of PTSD. To get compensation for PTSD as part of a settlement or jury verdict, you'll need evidence from an expert witness.

After an accident or injury, a person who is suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be able to get compensation for the disorder as part of an injury-related insurance claim, or in a personal injury lawsuit.

However, PTSD is a complicated psychological disorder and a plaintiff will have difficulty making this kind of claim without supporting testimony from an expert witness. This article discusses the role of an expert witness and how expert testimony functions to prove a plaintiff's PTSD in a personal injury case.

Why Expert Testimony?

It is a legal rule that when a fact issue is beyond the comprehension of the average juror, an expert witness is required to testify to explain the issue and, depending on the case, give an opinion as to whether the issue does or not does exist in the case.

PTSD, although part of common knowledge generally, is not understood in all its specifics by the average juror. In other words, the average juror is not qualified to assess whether a plaintiff suffers from PTSD, so an expert witness is needed to do the assessing for them. Aside from cross-examining the plaintiff’s expert witness, a defendant will often hire her own expert witness to give competing testimony and a different expert opinion. In other words, to refute the plaintiff's claims and to demonstrate that he or she is not suffering from PTSD.

Expert Witnesses and Fact Witnesses

It is not enough for an expert witness to testify as to their qualifications to diagnose PTSD (although that matters) and then give a diagnosis.

An expert must explain to the jury what is required to diagnose PTSD and whether the plaintiff, or a person with the same signs and symptoms as the plaintiff, has PTSD. Other witnesses may, and often do, give additional testimony about whether the plaintiff has the signs and symptoms the expert witness has described as necessary for a positive PTSD diagnosis. These are generally referred to as fact witnesses.

In other words, the expert is not necessarily giving testimony about the fact that the plaintiff has PTSD, but is testifying about what facts must be proven to establish PTSD. The only situation in which additional testimony from fact witnesses or other evidence is not necessary is when the expert witness is the plaintiff’s treating therapist and has personally witnessed the plaintiff exhibiting all of the necessary symptoms or the plaintiff has described the symptoms to the therapist/expert for the purposes of treatment. In that case, the therapist is both an expert witness and a fact witness.

Bottom line: The more credible sources a plaintiff has to prove the facts of a PTSD claim, the stronger the case will be.

What Plaintiff’s Witnesses Must Testify to in a PTSD Claim

The expert witness will testify first to his or her qualifications as an expert in the field of PTSD. After that, he or she will testify to the nature, signs and symptoms of PTSD. These are:

  • an initial stressful event
  • intrusive, recurring thoughts, dreams and flashbacks about the event
  • avoiding people, places and things that might trigger intrusive thoughts etc. about the stressful event
  • anxiety symptoms, like insomnia, hyper activity and an exaggerated startle response, and
  • disruption of important areas of the victim’s life, such as school, work or relationships.

If the expert witness was also the treating therapist, he or she will testify to whether or not the plaintiff sufficiently exhibited these symptoms to warrant a positive PTSD diagnosis.

If the expert was not the treating therapist, he or she could be asked whether the evidence presented by other witnesses or some clinical assessment of the plaintiff suggests the plaintiff, in his or her opinion, suffers from PTSD.

Depending on the circumstances of the case and the state where the case is being litigated, an "ultimate opinion" from the expert on whether the plaintiff has PTSD might not be allowed, and the question may be left entirely to the jury to decide, based on the facts before them.

Learn More About Damages in Injury Law

To learn more about the types of damages (losses) for which you may be compensated after an accident, see the articles we have filed under Personal Injury Damages and Compensation. If you need expert advice on your particular situation, consult with a local personal injury lawyer.

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