How to Calculate Pain and Suffering in a Car Accident Case

Insurance adjusters have several ways to put a dollar amount on your pain and suffering after a car accident.

Reviewed by , J.D. | Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney
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  • You've probably heard of people receiving compensation for their pain and suffering in car accident cases. But how do insurance adjusters and courts define—and quantify—pain and suffering?

    Here's what you need to know:

    • "Pain and suffering" is a legal term that refers to the pain (physical, emotional, and mental) a person experiences because of someone else's careless or wrongful act.
    • Insurance adjusters use several different methods to calculate pain and suffering.
    • You can get compensation for your pain and suffering after a car accident by filing an insurance claim or a car accident lawsuit.
    • The best evidence of your pain and suffering is typically found in your medical records.

    What Is Pain and Suffering In a Car Accident Case?

    Pain and suffering is shorthand for the physical and mental distress a person experiences after an injury. Pain and suffering in a car accident case includes:

    • physical pain and discomfort
    • emotional pain (stress, grief, embarrassment, fear), and
    • loss of enjoyment of life (missed activities, inconveniences, and disruptions.)

    In many car accident claims, most of the money an injured person gets is compensation for pain and suffering.

    Three Ways to Calculate Pain and Suffering

    Pain and suffering is hard to measure. You can't take an X-ray of someone's anxiety or run a lab test on anguish. Easy to measure accident-related losses—medical bills, lost income, property repair bills—are called "special" or "economic" damages. Damages that are harder to measure and prove, including pain and suffering, are called "general" or "non-economic" losses.

    Insurance adjusters and lawyers have three ways to put a ballpark dollar amount on a car accident claimant's pain and suffering.

    The Multiplier Method

    The multiplier method totals up the claimant's medical costs and multiplies that number by a factor, called the multiplier, which reflects the severity of the claimant's pain and suffering. Multipliers typically range from one to five.

    How Do You Choose the Multiplier?

    The obvious question—and a potential point of contention between you and the adjuster—is which multiplier to use for your case. You'll argue for a higher multiplier, while the adjuster is likely to push for a lower multiplier.

    Factors that can raise a multiplier include one or more of the following:

    • serious and obviously painful injuries (like fractures, tears, wounds, burns)
    • a prolonged recovery (six months or more), and
    • a permanent injury—pain, immobility, weakness, scarring—that is medically documented.

    Factors that can lower a multiplier include one or more of the following:

    Adjusters also tend to use a higher multiplier when fault for the accident is clear and easy to prove and when there are aggravating circumstances like drunk driving.

    Multiplier Method Example

    Let's say you injure your neck and shoulder when a truck driver rear-ends you. The truck driver was texting at the time of the accident and was obviously at fault.

    Your accident-related medical bills total $5,000. You were in physical therapy for three months before you regained full range of motion. Six months after the accident you still can't play tennis or do yard work. You had to miss a week of work while you recovered from your injuries. Your lost income added up to $1,000.

    An adjuster assigns a multiplier of two to estimate your pain and suffering. So, in the adjuster's opinion, your pain and suffering is worth about $10,000 ($5,000 x 2).

    A ballpark estimate of your damages is $16,000: $5,000 (medical costs) + $10,000 (pain and suffering) + $1,000 (lost income).

    Don't expect the adjuster to offer you $18,000 right away. This figure is an estimate of what the adjuster thinks you might get if you file a car accident lawsuit and win. The adjuster will offer you something less and you can negotiate a settlement from there.

    The Per Diem Method

    The per diem (per day) method counts the number of days a claimant suffers as a result of the car accident and multiplies the total days by a dollar amount, typically the claimant's daily wage.

    The per diem method is less common than the multiplier method and tends to unfairly underestimate the pain and suffering of lower-wage claimants.

    Colossus

    Many large insurance companies use a software program called Colossus to calculate car accident settlement values in routine cases. Adjusters feed data into the program and the program spits back a settlement range.

    Colossus calculations are valued at some companies more than others. Some adjusters won't budge from the recommended range, while others use it as a guide. There is nothing magic about the Colossus evaluation. You can always disagree with the calculation and have a judge or jury decide your case in court.

    How Can I Get Compensation for My Pain and Suffering?

    You can get compensation for your pain and suffering after a car accident by filing an insurance claim or a car accident lawsuit against the at-fault party.

    Filing an Insurance Claim

    Nearly all states require drivers and car owners to have some kind of liability car insurance. If you're in an accident that isn't your fault, you can file a claim against the at-fault driver's liability insurance and ask for compensation for all of your accident-related losses, including pain and suffering.

    It's a good idea to get the claims process started as soon as possible after the accident, leaving yourself the option of going to court—and the time to do so under the statute of limitations in your state—if you can't negotiate a settlement.

    Filing a Car Accident Lawsuit

    Filing a lawsuit against the at-fault party is another way to get compensation for your pain and suffering. Lawsuits are typically more complicated and expensive than insurance claims, so you might want to talk to a lawyer to see if you should settle or sue.

    You can file your lawsuit in small claims court or in civil court, depending on how much money you are asking for and where you live. Learn more about car accident lawsuits.

    How Do You I Prove Pain and Suffering?

    Most doctors agree that pain—physical, mental, emotional—can't be objectively measured. So how do car accident claimants prove their pain and suffering to an adjuster or a judge? Most claimants rely on their medical records to establish the amount of pain and suffering they've experienced.

    If you're in pain or discomfort, make sure to fully report it to your doctors so your complaints of pain will be noted in your files. Continue to see your doctor for as long as you are in pain to get the treatment you need and to document your continued problems. If you need medication to treat your pain, anxiety, or other condition, don't be too proud to ask for it or take it.

    Keep a daily log or a diary of everything you experience as a result of the accident—time away from work, sleepless nights, headaches, missed vacation, anxiety attacks, lost opportunities. Your notes will remind you of the details of your injuries and their effects on you.

    If you file a car accident lawsuit, you'll give a deposition and potentially testify at a trial about your pain and suffering. This is not the time to play the strong, but stoic type. You have to establish, with support from your medical records and notes, all that you've gone through, or had to miss or give up, because of your injuries.

    Making Your Case for Pain and Suffering

    To get the most out of your insurance claim or lawsuit, you'll want to write the insurance company a demand letter. Your demand letter should tell your side of the store with supporting evidence and clearly state what you are asking for to settle the case.

    The evidence you'll need to demonstrate your pain and suffering might include:

    • medical records and bills
    • medication prescriptions and bills
    • counseling or therapy records and bills
    • receipts for medical equipment
    • notes from your employer explaining lost time at work and accommodations
    • photographs of property damage and physical injuries
    • videos or photos that show your activities before and after the injury
    • personal journals that document your pain, and
    • statements from people you know who have witnessed the negative impact the accident has had on your day-to-day life.

    Once an adjuster has received your demand letter and supporting documents, the adjuster will investigate your claim and potentially make a settlement offer. The offer might be significantly less than what you asked for in your demand. If the adjuster's offer is too low, you can negotiate or file a car accident lawsuit.

    Your demand letter should tell a compelling story about the severity of your pain and how your pain impacted your life. But don't go overboard. If you embellish your story or make an unrealistic demand the adjuster might not take you seriously.

    Do I Need to See a Mental Health Care Provider?

    You can ask for compensation for mental and emotional injuries after a car wreck. Most people with mild mental and emotional distress don't seek professional treatment. They can tell an adjuster or jury about the anger, fear, sadness, and other distress they experienced after the accident.

    But more severe mental and emotional injuries, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), require professional treatment. Only a trained mental health professional can diagnose you with a mental disorder. (Learn more about PTSD and car accidents.)

    Talk to a Car Accident Lawyer

    The best way to evaluate your claim is to run the numbers using both the multiplier method and the per diem approach. Use your common sense to figure out a reasonable number for your pain and suffering.

    You should also talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can give you an informed, objective opinion about the value of your claim and help you present your best case to an adjuster or to a judge or jury in court.

    Learn more about hiring a car accident lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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