Car accidents can cause serious physical injury, but they can also leave driver and passengers with mental and/or emotional injuries that may not be as apparent. Mental and emotional injuries can lurk under the surface for months or even years until the sufferer gets treatment. In this article, we'll discuss mental and emotional injuries and how they affect a car accident case.
Mental and emotional injuries are generally referred to in personal injury litigation as "pain and suffering."
At the less severe end of the spectrum, mental and emotional injuries can include such problems as mental anguish, emotional distress, fear, anger, humiliation, anxiety, shock, or embarrassment. People with even mild cases of mental or emotional distress can experience bouts of crying, severe anger, loss of appetite, weight fluctuations, lack of energy, sexual dysfunction or loss of interest in sex, mood swings, and/or sleep disturbances. A mild case of mental or emotional distress might go away relatively quickly, but a more severe case might require professional medical or psychological assistance.
More severe mental and emotional injuries can have specific diagnoses such as acute stress disorder or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may have thought that PTSD only affects soldiers or crime victims, but it can affect car accident victims as well. Some people keep replaying the accident over and over in their head or begin to fear certain types of driving situations. For example, let’s say that you were rear ended pretty badly. After you got back on the road again, you might start worrying that you would get rear ended any time that you stopped in an unusual situation, like to let a child cross the road in the middle of a block. PTSD can become paralyzing for those who don’t get help sooner rather than later. (Learn more about PTSD and car accidents.)
You prove mild mental anguish or emotional distress from your own testimony. Most people with mild emotional distress don’t seek professional treatment. They would just tell the jury what happened to them. But more severe mental and emotional injuries become a medical issue, and must be proved with medical testimony. A lay person is not permitted to testify that he/she is suffering from PTSD. Only that person’s mental health provider can testify to such a diagnosis.
Insurance companies and juries accept claims for mental and emotional injuries as long as the mental injury claims are not out of proportion to the physical injury claims and/or to the severity of the accident.
For example, if someone was involved in a mild fender bender and suffered no more than a neck strain, but claims severe mental anguish and emotional distress, with the full range of symptoms, an insurer is simply not going to accept those claims (or compensate them). Nor will a jury. Someone who claims mental or emotional injuries completely out of proportion to their physical injuries loses all credibility with the insurance company and the jury.
Further, even if the claimed mental and emotional injury is proportionate to the physical injuries, the insurer and jury are less likely to accept the injury if the person did not get any treatment. If, for example, the injured person testifies that he/she is too scared to drive because of the accident, has lost his/her appetite, can’t sleep, and cries for hours on end, but has never had any mental health treatment, an insurer (and, most likely, a jury) is going to take such claims much less seriously.
For better or for worse, claims for mental and emotional injuries do not generally play a huge role in determining an injured person’s damages (the amount of compensation he or she will receive). Minor claims of mental anguish and emotional distress simply allow the injured person to be humanized; that is, to let the insurer and the jury see that the injured person is a regular person who can suffer pain.
More severe claims of mental injury (those in which the injured person has had mental health treatment) certainly increase a person’s damages in the sense that they increase the claim for medical bills and perhaps even for lost earnings. But they do not necessarily increase very significantly the amount of damages a jury will award for pain and suffering. Jurors likely assume that some amount of mental pain and suffering goes with the territory -- i.e., if you suffer a severe physical injury, you are likely to have suffered a severe emotional injury as well.