Evaluating the Role of Emotional Distress in Personal Injury Claims

Emotional distress is an important yet often misunderstood topic in personal injury law. Emotional distress is often called “non-economic damages,” as it refers to the psychological impact that an injury or accident has on the victim. Unlike economic damages, such as medical bills and lost wages, emotional distress is often intangible and subjective, making it challenging to quantify or prove, with the exception of bills for mental health care. However, it is critical to understand that emotional distress is legally compensable in many jurisdictions, including Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

Emotional distress compensation provides a form of redress for the mental suffering, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that a victim may undergo post-incident. Though it may be seen as a secondary injury to physical injuries, emotional distress can have a long-lasting and severe impact on a victim’s quality of life – and can be even more debilitating than physical injuries in certain cases.

What is Emotional Distress?

In the context of legal cases, emotional distress refers to a psychological condition or mental suffering that a victim experiences due to an event for which another party can be held legally responsible. Often encountered in personal injury cases and wrongful death cases, emotional distress covers a range of psychological reactions such as fear, anxiety, depression, humiliation, and general emotional upheaval. As emotional distress is often subjective, it can require substantial corroborative evidence to prove its existence and extent.

Importantly, emotional distress can manifest in two primary forms: negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). NIED occurs when the negligent actions of one party lead to the other party’s emotional suffering, while IIED arises from deliberate actions intended to cause severe emotional harm. In either case, establishing the presence and impact of emotional distress usually necessitates medical or psychological expert testimony, and sometimes even eyewitness accounts, to validate the claim. The legal intricacies surrounding emotional distress make it a complex but essential aspect of many legal claims.

Legal Precedents in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia

In Maryland, plaintiffs can claim emotional distress even in the absence of physical injury, but the standards for proving emotional distress are quite high. The plaintiff generally must show “clear and convincing” evidence to support the claim. The state follows the “impact rule,” requiring a physical impact on the plaintiff in some cases. Generally speaking, Maryland law does not recognize the negligent infliction of emotional distress independently, but if emotional distress is a component of other damages, it may be recognized.

Virginia is more restrictive when it comes to claims of emotional distress. The Commonwealth also adheres to the “impact rule,” requiring that emotional distress must accompany a physical injury or impact to recover damages. Virginia law allows for emotional distress claims under certain circumstances, but it sets a high bar for what constitutes “severe” emotional distress and often requires accompanying physical manifestations of the distress.

Washington, DC, in contrast, provides a more liberal stance on emotional distress claims. In Washington, DC, it is possible for a party to recover during a claim for emotional distress without an accompanying physical injury, especially if the other party’s conduct was intentional or reckless. Claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are more challenging to prove but not impossible.

How Can Emotional Distress Be Proven?

Proving emotional distress in a legal context is inherently challenging due to its subjective nature. However, there are various methods and types of evidence that can substantiate such claims. Here are some commonly accepted approaches for proving emotional distress:

  1. Medical and Psychological Records: Obtaining comprehensive medical or psychological evaluations is a good way to document the mental and emotional suffering of a party. Reports that detail conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often critical.
  2. Expert Testimony: Psychologists, psychiatrists, or other mental health professionals can be called upon to provide expert testimony. They can offer an informed opinion on a party’s mental state and the likelihood that it was affected by the incident in question.
  3. Witness Testimonies: Friends, family, and co-workers can testify regarding observable changes in one’s behavior, mood, or daily activities that can corroborate emotional distress.
  4. Demonstrative Evidence: Photos, videos, audio recordings, and other types of evidence that capture one’s emotional state and struggles can also be used as supporting evidence.
  5. Direct Testimony: An individual’s own testimony regarding their emotional distress can be influential. However, given the subjective nature of emotional distress, it often requires corroboration through other forms of evidence for substantial credibility.
  6. Proof of Physical Symptoms: In some cases, emotional distress can manifest physically, such as in the form of insomnia, headaches, or stomach issues. Medical records that document these symptoms can strengthen a claim for emotional distress.
  7. Establish a Causal Link: It’s crucial to prove that the emotional distress is directly attributable to another party’s actions. Establishing this causation often requires a mix of objective and subjective evidence.

What Types of Personal Injury Cases Have Emotional Distress Claims?

When personal injuries occur, emotional distress often accompanies the physical injuries. Emotional distress can be common in the following types of cases:

Automobile Accidents: Victims often experience significant emotional trauma following a severe car crash, especially if it results in fatalities or life-altering injuries. In some cases, victims may not feel comfortable driving or even riding as a passenger in another person’s car, which can greatly impact their ability to live a productive and happy life.

Dog Bites: Dog bites regularly lead to emotional distress – victims may become fearful of being around dogs of all types or sizes. In some cases, victims that have their own dogs may become fearful of them, which can have individual and family-wide negative impacts.

Medical Malpractice: Cases involving surgical errors, misdiagnosis, or wrongful death can lead to substantial emotional distress for the victims or their families. Victims may end up fearful of seeking medical care in the future, become depressed or withdrawn, or experience any other of a wide range of emotional setbacks.

Slip and Fall Accidents: In some instances, the humiliation or fear stemming from a slip and fall can be grounds for emotional distress. Victims may have ongoing discomfort going out to public places.

Contact the Experienced Attorneys at Dross Berman

If you have been involved in an accident or were injured, it is worth evaluating if you have a claim for emotional distress. The team of attorneys at Dross Berman has the experience and understanding of emotional distress claims to help clients receive the compensation they deserve. Contact us today for a free, no-commitment consultation.