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 many kinds of personal injury cases. If you are injured in an accident and you file a successful personal injury lawsuit, you can usually get compensation for your emotional harm (this is often a component of "pain and suffering") in addition to recovery for the more straightforward economic losses (medical bills, lost wages, etc.) related to your physical injuries.

The amount and availability of emotional distress damages can vary greatly depending upon the nature of your injuries and the specifics of your case. Even if you don’t file a lawsuit for your injuries, you may be able to negotiate a personal injury settlement with an insurance company that includes compensation for emotional distress. Read on to learn more.

What are Emotional Distress Damages?

Emotional distress damages are 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, anxiety, humiliation, and fear. Emotional distress is a very subjective type of harm, and it changes from person to person. There is no hard and fast definition, so if you are experiencing psychological issues after an accident, note them (more on this in the next section). Those issues 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 personal injury lawsuit, it's likely that you’re seeking medical treatment. In addition to your physical injuries, tell your doctor about any psychological symptoms you’ve experienced since the accident. Medically-documented emotional distress is a powerful component of your case.

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. Learn more about gathering evidence to support your personal injury claim.

Does the Severity of My Emotional Distress Matter?

In a word, yes. It's safe to say that everyone experiences some degree of emotional distress after an injury. The severity of your emotional distress has a direct impact on your potential for financial recovery. So it's 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, that it affects the basic way you go about your life, and that it 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 much less common than a simple claim for emotional distress damages, in some personal injury claims (particularly car accident 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.

Emotional Distress and Damage Caps

A few states have laws limiting how much you can be paid for non-economic damages, including emotional distress, especially in medical malpractice cases. 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 are subject to a statutory cap.

While there is, in certain circles, skepticism for claims of emotional distress, the fact 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 conditions are real and distressing, and they are also compensable as part of your injury claim. Learn more about damages in a personal injury case.

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