Emotional Distress Damages in a Personal Injury Case

Get an understanding of the role that emotional harm can play in an injury claim.

Emotional distress damages can be a major component of recovery in a personal injury case. If you are injured and file a successful lawsuit, you can get compensation for pain and suffering in addition to any economic damages (medical bills, lost wages, etc.) related to your injuries.

The amount and availability of non-economic damages such as emotional distress damages can vary greatly depending upon the nature of your injuries and the jurisdiction in which your personal injury lawsuit is filed. Even if you don’t file suit for your injuries, you may be able to negotiate a settlement with an insurance company that includes damages for emotional distress. Read on to learn more.

What are Emotional Distress Damages?

Emotional distress damages in a personal injury case are monetary damages designed to compensate you for the psychological impact your injury has had on your daily life. The list of manifestations of emotional distress is long and varied.

Sleep loss, anxiety, fear -- these all fall under the umbrella of emotional distress. So, too, do some cases of depression, crying jags, humiliation and fright. Emotional distress is a very subjective type of damage, and it changes from person to person. There is no hard and fast definition, so if you are experiencing psychological symptoms after an accident, note them (more on this in the next section). Those symptoms may be compensable. What is distressing to someone else may not be distressing to you, and vice versa.

Documenting Emotional Distress

If your injuries have reached a level that has spurred you to file a claim, it is likely that you’re seeking  medical treatment (which is important for an injury claim in general). Tell your doctor about any psychological symptoms you’ve experienced since the accident that caused your injuries. Medically documented emotional distress is a powerful tool in both lawsuits and claims with an insurance company.

It's also a good idea to keep a daily journal or diary in which you record how you're feeling in light of the accident and your injuries, and the (big and small) ways in which your life is affected.

The more evidence of your emotional distress you can assemble, the stronger your claim will be and the higher the likelihood of recovery.

Does the Severity of My Emotional Distress Matter?

In a word, yes. It is safe to say that everyone experiences a degree of emotional distress after an injury. The severity of your emotional distress has a direct impact upon your potential for recovery. As a result, it is important to document any feelings your're having, through a medical provider if at all possible.

Generally speaking, you’ll need to show that your emotional stress is ongoing, affects the basic way you go about your life, and is directly related to the physical injuries the defendant caused you to suffer. While people with pre-existing psychological conditions are not precluded from collecting emotional distress damages in a personal injury claim, it is far easier to do so if you can definitively show that your emotional distress did not begin until after your accident.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In some cases, you may wish to include a separate claim for  intentional  infliction of emotional distress. While not as common as a simple claim for emotional distress damages, in some personal injury cases (particularly auto negligence cases) you may be able to prove that the defendant was either "grossly" negligent or clearly intended to cause emotional distress as well as physical harm. Road rage cases are prime candidates for separate emotional distress causes of action. In these types of cases, your recovery for emotional distress could be significantly higher.

Emotional Distress and Damage Caps

Many states now have laws limiting how much you can be paid for non-economic damages, including emotional distress. Depending on the severity of your injury, the type of case, and the law of your particular jurisdiction, you may find that emotional distress damages aren’t even an option. In no-fault states, for example, you will commonly find that all non-economic damages are subject to statutory caps.

Emotional distress is a very real result of being injured. While there is, in certain circles, a healthy portion of skepticism heaped upon any claim for emotional distress, the fact of the matter is that physical injuries very often have serious psychological ramifications. Fear of driving after a car accident, agoraphobia after an assault and depression during a long rehabilitation -- these emotional conditions are real and distressing, and they are also compensable as part of your injury claim.

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