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Is Emotional Distress a Personal Injury?

The most visible injuries a person can suffer after an accident are physical in nature. Bruises, lacerations, and broken bones. These physical injuries often cause intense pain, which can make sleep and work almost impossible.

However, emotional distress is another consequence of many accidents. Few people can see the emotional turmoil a person endures, so they might simply assume an accident caused no emotional fallout. This begs the question, is emotional distress a personal injury matter?

As a seasoned Aiken, SC personal injury lawyer, Stephen Surasky knows better. Most physical injuries cause emotional distress. And, in some cases, a person can sue for emotional distress even if they suffered no physical injury. Please contact our law firm today to find out more about your rights.

What is Emotional Distress?

Everyone has felt negative emotions at some point in their lives. For most of us, however, the pain is transitory. After an accident, some people experience intense negative emotions and anguish. Typically, this anguish takes the form of:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Fear

  • Shame

  • Guilt

  • Irritability

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

This emotional turmoil can be incredibly disruptive. Someone suffering from anxiety could struggle to leave the house or even sleep at night. Depression can disrupt a person’s intimate relationships with family and friends and lead to seclusion and a withdrawal from society. Even irritability can impact a person’s relationship with their spouse or children.

How Do You Treat Emotional Distress?

The mind and body are connected, and emotional distress can make it hard to overcome physical injuries like nerve damage, fractures, and traumatic brain injuries. After an accident, we recommend victims seek immediate medical care. They should also freely seek out mental health care if it is not offered by their primary physician. Ask for a referral to a psychologist or mental health therapist.

Can You Receive Compensation for Emotional Distress?

Yes. In the typical accident case, our clients suffer physical injuries and emotional distress at the same time. Emotional distress is a type of non-economic loss which should be compensated in a lawsuit or settlement. It is very similar to physical pain, and some attorneys consider emotional distress a component of “pain and suffering.”

Let’s be clear. Following an accident, you should receive compensation for all medical bills, including treatment for emotional distress. The cost of prescription drugs and meetings with a therapist or psychologist should be covered.

However, personal injury clients can also receive a sum of money for the distress itself. How much? That depends on the severity of symptoms and how the distress has interrupted your life.

Do You Need to Suffer a Physical Injury to Receive Emotional Distress Compensation?

This is a good question. Historically, a victim could only receive compensation for emotional distress if the defendant violated an established right, usually the right to not suffer unwanted physical contact. So a “near miss” car accident would not qualify, regardless of how much distress it caused the victim, because the victim did not have their body violated. By contrast, if the motorist were struck, they could seek emotional distress damages.

That is not the law in South Carolina today. You can receive compensation without an offensive bodily contact by bringing a claim for either Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) or Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED).

With an IIED claim, you must show the defendant intentionally or recklessly inflicted emotional distress through outrageous conduct, which caused severe distress no reasonable person could endure. Someone harassing you in public and causing intense distress could qualify.

The NIED is the newer of the two torts. You can sue for emotional distress only if you can show the following elements:

  • The defendant negligently caused serious physical injury or death to a person.

  • You were near the accident.

  • You were closely related to the victim.

  • You perceived the accident as it happened, usually by seeing it.

  • Your emotional distress has manifested into physical symptoms, as established by expert medical testimony.

How Do You Document Emotional Distress?

This is always a key concern. Because people cannot see the turmoil inside your head, they might minimize it or disbelieve that you are suffering any distress at all. This is often the posture adopted by insurance adjusters, who might offer peanuts for emotional distress. (They do the same with physical pain.)

We encourage accident victims to reach out to an attorney soon after an accident. Our legal team has helped many people document their emotional distress. For example, you can keep a journal detailing how you feel emotionally. You should also keep close track of any therapy you attend as well as prescription drugs for mental health conditions, such as anti-anxiety or antidepressants.

Can You Sue for Emotional Distress?

If you were struck, accidentally or intentionally, then you can pursue emotional distress damages in a lawsuit or settlement.

If you were not struck, then we will need to consider bringing an intentional infliction of emotional distress or negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. These are not easy to find and rarely apply. For example, you still can’t sue for a “near miss” car accident unless someone was intentionally trying to hit you or you observe the driver accidentally harm someone close to you, like a spouse or child.

We Can Help You Increase Your Compensation

Most claims for emotional distress will be made in the context of bodily injuries. Please contact Surasky Law today to learn more about how we can help. We offer a free consultation to anyone who requests it.


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