How to prove emotional distress?

Although Ellis Injury Law does not take emotional distress cases, we are happy to provide you with this content on the subject. Our law firm focuses on physical injury cases from car, truck, and slip and fall accidents.

Emotional distress is a claim one could specify in a list of non-economic “pain and suffering” damages within a lawsuit. Our Los Angeles law firm has lawyers ready to meet with clients who are enduring severe emotional distress.  

Different people react to stress in different ways. Some car accident victims may experience anxiety and panic when they have to get into a motor vehicle again. Physical effects like high blood pressure, stomach upsets, diarrhea, ulcers, and insomnia may accompany the distress. Others suffer from guilt, lethargy, depression, and substance abuse.  

Constructing a legal framework for emotional distress 

No matter how emotional distress manifests, it is not just in a person’s head; it can have a direct impact on one’s life that leads to economic losses down the road. The feeling of emotional distress is obvious to the sufferer, but how is it proven in court? Enlisting the help of a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer will be necessary to bolster the claim for non-economic damage compensation. 

To prove emotional distress, attorneys must construct a winning legal argument. They may claim: 

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress – Attorneys argue that the defendant acted “purposefully” or “recklessly.” They contend that the conduct was so “extreme,” “shocking,” and “outrageous,” that it cannot be tolerated by civilized society.  
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress – Attorneys argue that the defendant engaged in “negligent misconduct” or “a willful violation of a statutory duty.”   
  • Bystander emotional distress – In special cases, attorneys argue that a spouse or child living in the household who directly witnesses the accident has suffered extreme emotional distress, even in the absence of their own physical injuries. The argument is easier to make in fatal car crashes, as a death in the family is obvious cause for distress, particularly for other survivors who were in the vehicle at the time. A precedent was set in the 1968 case of Dillon v. Legg, where a child was struck and killed by a car, prompting the mother and sister who saw the whole traumatic event happen to sue for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit initially failed in court, but subsequently succeeded upon appeal. 

In any event, the central argument for emotional distress is that the conduct directly led to the accident and the infliction of emotional distress, and that the emotional distress is not fleeting, but rather, greatly impacts daily life.  

What does a strong emotional distress claim include? 

In their assessment, the courts will likely consider different factors indicating emotional distress, such as: 

  • Physical Effects – Did stress caused by the accident produce observable physical effects like: digestive upset, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, low energy, weight gain, weight loss, amenorrhea, high blood pressure, insomnia, frequent colds or infections, cold sores, muscle aches, nervous behaviors, ulcers, or substance abuse? 
  • Psychological Effects – Did the accident lead to sudden onset of clinical symptoms consistent with diagnosable anxiety, depression, or PTSD? Did the victim have a traumatic past history with symptoms that could reasonably be triggered by a car accident? 
  • Mental Health Care Provider Confirmation – Did the car accident victim tell a medical provider about the mental side effects following the crash? Was mental health care sought? Did the victim receive a diagnosis, or start a new prescription drug to cope with the effects? 
  • Duration – Did the plaintiff suffer for months or years after the crash, or just a couple days? 
  • Intensity – Was the emotional distress intense enough to affect the ability to go to school, work, care for the family, or care for him/herself? Was it disruptive to daily functioning?  
  • Severity – Was the property damage/injuries so shocking or severe it warrants automatic anguish? 

Who is most likely to suffer emotional distress? 

While the occurrence of emotional distress is widely accepted in court, attorneys may refer to published medical studies to lend additional credibility. For instance:  

  • A study published in the British Medical Journal found that psychological distress in those with a musculoskeletal injury was tied to significantly longer settlement times (an additional 17 weeks) and considerably higher costs (4.3 times as much). Risk factors for psychological distress included: female gender, social disadvantage, unemployment prior to the claim, no fault in the collision, ambulance transport away from the scene, and rehabilitation as part of recovery. 
  • A meta-analysis found that traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and musculoskeletal injury (including whiplash) resulted in significantly elevated distress levels. Researchers found the psychological distress remained elevated for at least three years following a motor vehicle collision.  
  • Another study concluded that 1 in 2 car accident victims suffered elevated rates of psychological distress, including agitation, fatigue, confusion, loss of motivation, and depression. Distress was evident 12 months after the initial injury occurred. Factors like more severe physical injury, older age, and past negative emotional reactions to distress were associated with elevated distress beyond a year.   

Additional evidence to prove emotional distress 

Next, plaintiffs will need “evidence” to validate the claim. Compelling evidence of emotional distress may include: 

  • Testimony from a mental health professional 
  • Copies of medical records 
  • Doctor’s statements and notations 
  • Medications prescribed for treating emotional trauma and their use 
  • A personal statement taken in deposition or police report statement 
  • Witness testimony, depositions, and accounts 
  • A log or timeline of the defendant’s behavior (to make a case for recklessness and intentional harm) 
  • Journal entries detailing the facts surrounding the accident’s effects on daily life 
  • Pictures and documentation of the physical injuries and severity of the accident