The effects of a severe injury are not just physical. They are emotional as well, often leaving victims to cope with long-term psychological distress that can be just as debilitating as any other serious ailment. In extreme cases, this trauma can prevent someone from holding down a job, caring for themselves and their family, or enjoying life as they once did.
When someone hurts another person, either by accident or on purpose, the injured party may file a lawsuit against them with the aim of making the injured party whole again in other words, to compensate them financially so they can afford to restore their life to its pre-accident condition. This means having the money to overcome as much of the emotional damage the victim has suffered as possible.
But what exactly is emotional damage or, to use the legal term, emotional distress and what does it mean in the context of a personal injury claim? This blog answers those questions, explains how you can demand compensation for the harm you have suffered, and describes specific rules and deadlines you should know about as you pursue justice with the help of a personal injury lawyer.
Examples of Emotional Harm in a Personal Injury Case
Some common examples of emotional injuries related to a personal injury case include:
- Anxiety. Many people feel highly anxious or fearful after an accident. An injured person may feel frightened or anxious in situations similar to when the accident occurred, or they may feel more anxious in general. Severe anxiety can compromise your quality of life and keep you from doing things you used to enjoy.
- Depression. Depression is common among people who have sustained permanent injuries in an accident, especially if those injuries keep them from working or enjoying their favorite activities. Like anxiety, severe depression can disrupt your quality of life and prevent you from doing activities you once found joy in.
- Insomnia. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders can disrupt someone’s sleep and affect areas of their life. Without proper sleep, injured people often see a sharp drop in their quality of life due to exhaustion. Intense insomnia can also make someone more prone to further injury.
- Nightmares or flashbacks. It is common for people who have witnessed or experienced severe trauma to relive the traumatic event in their minds. For most people, this happens while they are asleep, but some accident victims experience waking flashbacks that are often disorienting and frightening. These flashbacks frequently occur when victims experience a trigger related to the initial traumatic event.
- Shame or guilt. People who have experienced traumatic events may feel shame or guilt about their injuries or that they survived the accident when others didn’t. These feelings can severely affect the victim’s mental state and quality of life.
- Heightened anger. Brain injuries and emotional trauma can disrupt a sufferer’s ability to process emotions and make them more prone to anger. In many cases, the injured party cannot control their anger, causing them to lash out at others or hurt themselves because they cannot manage their feelings.
- Racing or obsessive thoughts. A traumatic accident can short-circuit the brain’s natural fight-or-flight response, causing one to anticipate danger at every turn. These racing, obsessive thoughts can be distracting and prevent people from enjoying everyday life.
- Mood swings. A brain injury or traumatic event can affect the mind’s emotional regulators, causing rapid and uncontrolled mood swings. These mood swings can disrupt normal life and cause people to feel intense shame or guilt about their inability to manage their emotions.
- Feeling detached from your body or the world around you. Mental health professionals call this dissociation, which can make it difficult for people to connect with others and interact with the world.
- Loss of enjoyment in life. Severe mental or physical disabilities can prevent someone from enjoying life the way they did before they became hurt. Depending on the injury or disability, someone injured in an accident may have to live with the effects for the rest of their life, leading to severe depression or other mental health problems.
Post-Traumatic Stress After an Accident
One common and particularly harmful example of emotional damage from an injury is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that affects people’s emotions and cognition after they have been through or witnessed a traumatic event.
Some accidents or events that can cause PTSD to include:
- Car crashes and other motor vehicle accidents
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist attacks
- Being involved in war or combat
- Sexual assault
- Severe physical injuries
- Witnessing someone else injured or killed
The American Psychiatric Association lists four broad categories of PTSD symptoms:
- Intrusion. When someone experiences intrusive thoughts or emotions, they cannot control what they think or feel, even if they would rather think about something else. People with PTSD often relieve the traumatic experience without the ability to stop themselves. Other intrusion symptoms include racing thoughts, involuntary flashbacks, and nightmares.
- Avoidance. For someone with PTSD, avoidance is the opposite of intrusion. They often avoid being in or near places, people, situations, or activities that might remind them of their traumatic experiences. Avoidance can cause people with PTSD to forego things that once brought them joy and bottle up their negative emotions, leading to additional symptoms.
- Changes in reactivity. PTSD often changes how people react to things in their environment, leading them to overreact to ordinary events or actions. For example, someone with PTSD might jump at loud or sudden noises or react strongly to situations or events that ordinarily would not bother them. Because small disruptions in routine can lead to massive adrenaline surges, people with PTSD often have trouble concentrating or sleeping.
- Changes in cognition and mood. People with PTSD may experience drastic changes in their mental functions, even if they did not sustain a physical brain injury. PTSD often causes people to have trouble with memory or concentration or to feel guilty, confused, or ashamed about what happened to them. Alternatively, PTSD can also cause someone to lose interest in activities they used to enjoy or leave them feeling isolated from others.
Recovering Compensation for Emotional Damage in a Personal Injury Case
Can you recover compensation for emotional injuries as part of a Florida personal injury claim? The short answer is yes, but there are a few hurdles to overcome before you can do so.
In many states, including Florida, proving your emotional injuries stem from physical injuries is a prerequisite to recovering compensation for them. Lawyers call this requirement the “impact rule” because you have to show the impact your physical injuries had on you and how they caused your emotional distress.
Once you prove that you suffered physical injuries in an accident, you must then show that the injuries caused you emotional distress and that your emotional pain has affected your quality of life.
Some types of evidence you can use to prove your emotional distress include:
- Your medical records, which can show the extent of your physical injuries and how they affect your everyday life
- Notes from your doctor or a mental health professional that substantiate your emotional injuries
- Testimony from your mental health professional or other medical experts
- Testimony from your family, friends, or others who know you well
Exceptions to the Impact Rule in Florida Personal Injury Cases
While you usually have to show you sustained physical injuries before recovering compensation for emotional distress, the courts have ruled that Florida’s impact rule has certain exceptions.
These exceptions include:
- Injuries to family members. Seeing a spouse, child, parent, or other family die or suffer severe injuries in an accident can be emotionally devastating. Even if you did not sustain physical injuries in the accident, seeing a loved one injured or killed can cause severe psychic wounds.
- Therapists violate their promise of confidentiality. People with mental health conditions trust their therapists to maintain confidentiality. If a therapist reveals a patient’s mental health disorder to another party, the patient may suffer severe emotional distress as a result.
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress. If someone intentionally causes you emotional distress by making threats or emotionally injuring you in some other way, you can demand compensation even if you did not sustain physical injuries.
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress. In certain rare circumstances, someone’s negligent actions may cause another party such extreme emotional distress that they have the right to claim compensation for the harm they suffered.
Compensation for Emotional Damage in a Personal Injury Case
If you suffered emotional injuries due to someone else’s negligent or intentional actions, a personal injury lawyer can help you pursue compensation for:
- Your medical bills, including the cost of therapy or other mental health treatment you need
- The cost of transportation to and from your medical appointments
- Any income you lost due to physical or emotional injuries
- Any reduction in your future earnings due to a physical or emotional injury
- Your diminished quality of life due to your emotional damage
- Your physical pain from your injuries, if applicable
- Your damaged personal property
How Long Do You Have to File a Lawsuit for Emotional Damage?
Florida’s statute of limitations on personal injury claims gives you four years after an accident to file a lawsuit. This deadline matters even if you never actually file suit in your case. That’s because, without the threat of a lawsuit, you have no leverage while negotiating a settlement with insurance companies.
If you miss the deadline to file a lawsuit, the courts will most likely dismiss your case as untimely, costing you your right to compensation. Speak to a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible after an accident to avoid issues with Florida’s statute of limitations.
What to Do if You Suffer Emotional Damage After an Accident?
Here are a few things you can do to protect your right to compensation if you suffered emotional injuries after an accident:
- Seek treatment right away. See a doctor immediately regardless of whether you think you suffered injuries. Some symptoms take time to manifest, during which the underlying injury can worsen. If you did not sustain physical injuries, see a mental health professional as soon as you can. Waiting to start treatment for physical or emotional injuries can complicate your claim. Keep all bills and other documentation related to your care.
- Start a journal or diary. Proving how your emotional distress has affected your life can be one of the most challenging parts of a personal injury case. Keeping a daily record of your mood and feelings can demonstrate your emotional distress’s effect on your life.
- Stay off social media. Insurance companies can find anything you post on social media and use it against you. While you need emotional support after an accident, you should talk to your friends or family in person or over the phone to avoid doing anything that could jeopardize your claim. Still, do not divulge anything about the specifics of your pending claim, as adjusters and defense attorneys could compel them to provide testimony that hurts your case.
- Do not talk to any insurance companies. Recovering compensation for emotional distress is difficult, especially if you did not sustain physical injuries. You should avoid giving an insurance company any ammunition to use against you. If an insurer contacts you, tell them to speak to your lawyer and leave it at that.
- Hire a personal injury attorney. An experienced personal injury lawyer will know how to help you recover compensation for emotional distress. The earlier you speak to a lawyer, the higher your chances are of winning your case.
Cases involving emotional distress are often complex. While emotional damage is every bit as real and harmful as a physical injury, it will not appear on an X-ray or CT scan. Consequently, it takes more evidence to establish the full extent of the harm it causes. The sooner you talk to a personal injury attorney, the quicker they can get to work gathering evidence, consulting with experts, and building a robust case for compensation.