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The Importance of Seeking Damages for Emotional Distress in Legal Cases



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Accidents often leave bodily injuries and sometimes property damage. Some are not anyone’s fault, but most are attributable to someone’s negligence. In such cases, you can sue for compensation for your personal injury.

However, the harm resulting from the liable parties’ wrongful acts (or lack of action) may involve less apparent effects. Physical injury or simple involvement in an accident is a traumatic event that often impacts the victims emotionally and psychologically. When pursuing a personal injury case, you can seek damages for emotional distress.

The impact of emotional harm on some people can be minor, but to others, it can affect their lives and careers in the long term. They may never recover from the ordeal without extensive intervention. When that happens, victims can seek compensation with help from The Personal Injury Center. Find out why, when, and how in this article.

Key Takeaways
  • Emotional distress is the mental suffering experienced by a victim as a result of the negligent actions of a third party. It can manifest as depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and weight changes.
  • Most states allow plaintiffs to file a separate cause of action for emotional distress.
  • The damages awarded for emotional distress depend on the severity of the symptoms and the credibility of the evidence.

What is emotional distress?

Emotional distress can mean many things, but from a legal perspective, it is mental suffering caused by someone else’s actions. Often, it is a reaction to the memory of a traumatic event or medical condition. For example, you may experience fear when entering a vehicle after a serious car accident. 

It may also be the pain you may feel during recovery from a broken bone. In some cases, you may be unable to enjoy the activities you used to do before an accident or respond as usual to family members.

Symptoms of emotional distress may include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Chronic headaches
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Shame or guilt
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Weight gain or loss

The operative phrase in a personal injury claim is “someone else’s actions.” In other words, your suffering would not have happened if it were not for that person’s behavior. 

Take a car accident, for example. Suppose you were the lead driver in a rear-end accident caused by the trailing drunk driver. Because of the accident, you suffered extensive facial injuries requiring several operations to correct. Even then, you have scars that affect your self-esteem. You become reclusive, unwilling to see anyone who knew you before the accident.

In this case, the trailing driver breached their duty of care by driving impaired, causing your injuries and emotional suffering. Without the at-fault driver’s choice to drive impaired, you would not have sustained injuries that caused your emotional distress.

You are not the only one who may suffer these effects. Anyone else in the car may develop the same symptoms, or family members may suffer a loss of consortium.

Emotional distress in these situations is compensable as non-economic damages, collectively known as pain and suffering. However, not all emotional distress qualifies as a personal injury.

Why is it important to sue for damages for emotional distress?

Most people think they can walk through the emotional trauma of an accident, but that is not always the case. Emotional distress often extends the recovery period because it can also manifest physically. Someone anxious or depressed often feels tired and unable to eat or sleep. Some do not have the energy to attend rehabilitation sessions or focus on their work.

All these effects can significantly change a person’s life and come with substantial financial costs. Accident victims may not even know they suffer mental anguish until much later. For this reason, it is important to sue for emotional distress. Consult a personal injury law firm to determine if you can file it as a separate claim.  

How do you prove emotional distress?

Emotional distress is intangible and subjective, so proving it to the jury or insurance company is challenging. You might not know where to start, but an experienced personal injury attorney can help. Working with one ensures you receive fair compensation for your losses.

In most cases, your lawyer will evaluate the emotional impact of the accident on you. Your testimony of your experiences and that of your family can be valuable. They can establish how the accident has changed your personality and behavior.

Types of Emotional Distress Claims

A claim of emotional distress is typically in conjunction with a physical injury. However, when a defendant’s act is so egregious, emotional distress can be pursued as a tort even when there is no bodily injury.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress

Negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) refers to the careless or reckless act of the defendant that caused mental anguish for the victims. Take the example above with the drunk driver. Suppose you did not sustain physical injuries but developed a persistent hand tremor that affects your ability to work. In that case, you can file an NIED lawsuit.

However, some states require a physical injury to file an NIED claim. One is Georgia, which subscribes to the impact rule. In Lee v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., the Supreme Court of Georgia cited case law that requires physical injury to be a component of the complaint. Florida subscribes to the same requirement. However, there are exceptions, particularly in cases involving the zone of danger rule.

Most jurisdictions apply the zone of danger rule instead of the impact rule for purely emotional distress claims. Essentially, it states that anyone in imminent danger of harm can sue. However, there are requirements. The plaintiff must be closely related to the accident victim and be at the accident scene, even if they were not in the vehicle. They must also have suffered emotional distress beyond that of an unrelated bystander.  

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Most accidents are negligent but unintentional, meaning the at-fault party had no plan to harm anyone. However, there are cases when the defendant acts for the sole purpose of causing mental anguish. When the conduct is extreme or outrageous, it is tantamount to intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). Examples of IIED include sex discrimination, racial insults, false imprisonment, and threats to physical security.

If you prove it results in significant anxiety or fear, you can sue someone for IIED for bullying or cruelty. You need documentation of your suffering, such as an official medical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If your close relative suffers emotional distress from IIED acts, they might sue in some jurisdictions.

What qualifies as emotional distress evidence in a lawsuit?

Admissible evidence to establish emotional distress in a lawsuit will vary by state. However, telling the court that the defendant hurt your feelings will not impress any judge or jury. You need to establish that you suffered significant emotional distress with credible evidence.

One form of compelling evidence is documentation showing you consulted a psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist because of a traumatic event. Being prescribed medication or ongoing treatment might also come in useful. Suppose you cannot sleep or get up in the morning because of the trauma. You may be able to submit an activity or sleep-tracking app record to show changes in sleep patterns and heart rate.

Another piece of evidence proving lifestyle changes is an employee evaluation after an accident. The inability to concentrate can impact your productivity, and periodic assessments can show any radical shifts in your work life. Your lawyer might also want to interview family members, friends, and colleagues.


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Examples of Emotional Distress Lawsuits

We previously used the example of a car accident as a trauma-causing event. Still, emotional distress can result from various scenarios. The following are some examples of a litigable situation.

Medical malpractice

People tend to trust their healthcare providers. We lose that trust when they are negligent and cause us harm. Some develop fear and anxiety about going to the doctor or hospital. Medical malpractice victims may also experience physical pain from botched medical treatment, maybe even long-term disability.

Witnessing a wrongful death

Most people experience mental anguish by watching a loved one die in any situation. However, it makes it worse when it is a wrongful death. Witnessing death due to someone’s negligence increases the likelihood of developing issues such as PTSD.

Trauma from car accidents

Car accidents can happen to anyone and anywhere. While most are minor, it isn’t until you’re in a bad one that you understand how traumatic it can be. Survivors of a car accident often relive the experience while awake or in their dreams. That can make it difficult for them to get over the incident and return to their normal lives.

Nursing home abuse

Nursing home abuse is unfortunately common and can affect victims and their families. Physical neglect, emotional harm, or sexual abuse often result in the decline of the patient’s health and long-lasting outcomes. Most patients fear their abusers and may not tell their families about it until it’s too late. The effect of learning about a loved one’s prolonged suffering can be devastating to family members.

Personal injury

Personal injuries encompass many adverse events, including car accidents and medical malpractice. Others are more mundane, such as slips and falls and dog bites. In any case, most victims suffer some type of emotional distress, either in the incident itself or in the recovery. When the injury is severe enough, or the event results in wrongful death, it may have long-term psychological effects.

Wrongful arrest

Getting arrested for something you didn’t do or experiencing excessive force in the act can be traumatic. It can result in a loss of trust and sense of security, especially if you experience abuse while in police custody. You can file a civil claim for emotional distress and other damages in such cases.

How To File an Emotional Distress Lawsuit

You should understand that tort laws vary by state when suing someone for emotional distress. For example, the statute of limitations for car accidents ranges from six months to six years, depending on the circumstances. Most states have the same statute of limitations for emotional distress lawsuits and personal injury claims.

States also specify the basis for emotional distress lawsuits. For instance, Alabama does not recognize NIED as a separate cause of action. That means you cannot sue someone for NIED outside a personal injury lawsuit. 

You should find a personal injury attorney with experience handling emotional distress cases in your state. Visit The Personal Injury Center to find one to file your claim. 

Here are some things you should do to file an emotional damages lawsuit.

Document your experiences

One of the ways to prove an adverse event affected you emotionally and psychologically is to document what you are going through. That includes any physical symptoms such as sleeplessness and weight loss. You can do the following to document your experiences:

  • Get an evaluation from mental health professionals.
  • Keep a journal recording your thoughts, feelings, and fears.
  • Record testimonies from family members, loved ones, and friends.

The compensation you can claim for emotional distress depends on your unique circumstances. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself, as that will make it more challenging to prove your mental anguish. Share them with doctors, family members, and colleagues.

Discuss your plans with an attorney

After documenting your experiences, share them with your attorney. They can assess if the evidence you gathered warrants a claim. If you need more proof, a lawyer can help you get that so you can prepare for a trial.  

Pre-trial preparations

Assuming your lawyer thinks you have a case, the next step is to file an emotional distress lawsuit. Once you file, you can notify the defendant, initiating pre-trial preparations. Generally, that means the discovery phase, where you exchange information with the defendant’s attorney, if any. That may include documents, depositions, and declarations.

The judge handling your case will likely call for a case management conference. The lawyers will discuss the case details, and the judge will set a date for a trial.

During trial

At the trial, the lawyers for both parties will present evidence supporting and disputing your claim. This may take several weeks to months, depending on the number of points discussed. The defendant will try to undermine your evidence, and your lawyer will counter their arguments. Once both parties rest, the trial ends, and it is up to the jury or judge to give a verdict.

Note that negotiations for a settlement can occur before filing a case, during pre-trial proceedings, or during the trial itself. You can authorize your lawyer to approach the defendant about settling the case and accepting any offers on your behalf.

Pro Tip

Getting fired from your job is not grounds for an emotional distress claim, even if it was unlawful or without cause. However, you can file a civil lawsuit if your employer violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Find Help To Recover Damages for Emotional Distress

Personal injury victims and their families often experience significant trauma after an adverse event. The emotional toll can prevent them from getting over the experience, affecting them financially.

Fortunately, you can recover damages for emotional distress as part of a personal injury lawsuit or through a separate cause of action. However, mental anguish is intangible, so proving it can be challenging. Find out more about your rights to compensation at The Personal Injury Center.

We provide well-researched articles on many aspects of tort law in the US and Canada. We can also help you find a personal injury lawyer in your state to recover damages for emotional distress.

Book a free case evaluation to start the process now.

Emotional distress is a real problem that victims will not easily overcome. Get compensation for your mental anguish with the help of The Personal Injury Center.

FAQs on Damages for Emotional Distress

Personal injury attorneys typically use the "multiplier method" to calculate damages for emotional distress. They add the economic damages, such as medical expenses and lost income, then multiply it by a number between 1.5 and 5. The result will be what you can claim in a settlement or verdict for non-economic damage.

Mental anguish or emotional distress typically falls under non-economic damages. This term covers all the intangible harm victims, or their survivors suffered in a personal injury or wrongful death claim. Some courts may award punitive damages for intentional torts such as cyberbullying.

Most people use stress and distress interchangeably, but they are not the same in degree. Stress is a physiological response to a situation that demands a reaction, such as a threat. In the short term, it triggers hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to get you moving.

Distress, however, is the prolonged and severe response triggered by sustained exposure to stress. It creates tension and discomfort, presenting its sufferer with situations they cannot handle. Long exposure to stress hormones can lead to psychological and physical disorders such as anxiety and back pain.

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