Car accidents commonly cause physical injuries and financial difficulty. But that’s not all. Victims also frequently have a severe emotional response to the trauma of a crash. And for some, that response leads to psychological distress, known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
If you or someone you love has PTSD after a car accident, you may have the right to collect compensation. Here’s an overview of when and how you might claim damages for PTSD and other emotional distress caused by a car accident and the role an experienced car accident lawyer plays in getting you the most money possible.
Background on PTSD
Post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people after they experience a shocking, dangerous, or frightening event (referred to generally as trauma). Feeling distressed after trauma is normal and healthy if those feelings diminish over time. But people with PTSD experience a physical and emotional response to trauma that doesn’t fade. Instead, it persists or recurs in a way that disrupts their lives and becomes unhealthy.
Exposure to trauma is a necessary predicate for developing PTSD. The disorder is common among people who have been in car accidents, engaged in military combat, or witnessed natural disasters or mass shootings. Virtually any violent, life-threatening, or extremely distressing event can constitute trauma leading to PTSD.
People who suffer from PTSD experience a range of disruptive and upsetting symptoms. The symptoms can begin as early as a few months after the incident or as late as years afterward.
The signs and symptoms that mental health professionals use to diagnose PTSD in late teens and adults are:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts
- Avoiding places, activities, objects, or thoughts that remind the person of the trauma
- Heightened arousal and reactivity, such as feeling easily startled, constantly tense, hyper-vigilant (always on the lookout for danger), or being on an emotional hair-trigger
- Cognitive and mood disturbances, like feeling depressed, detached from others, or irrationally pessimistic, guilty, or despairing
Children and adolescents can also have PTSD. They experience the same four diagnostic symptoms above but may express them differently. Young children, for example, may wet the bed, stop communicating, reenact a trauma during playtime, or cling to a parent or other adult. Adolescents may display a mixture of symptoms common to young children or adults.
No matter their age, individuals with PTSD experience profound disturbances in their lives. PTSD affects a person’s ability to maintain relationships, work, attend school, or socialize. It can lead to problems like substance misuse or self-harm. And the stress and exhaustion it causes can significantly negatively impact a person’s physical health.
Compensation Increasingly Allowed for PTSD as a Stand-Alone Car Accident Injury
Many car accident victims have PTSD and have also suffered physical injury. But not all do. A person who survives a crash with only minor physical scrapes and bruises or no injuries might experience severe PTSD symptoms. And they deserve compensation just as much as the people whose PTSD accompanies physical injuries.
But believe it or not, until relatively recently, people with cases of PTSD who weren’t also physically injured in a car accident struggled to secure monetary damages. Over most of U.S. legal history, courts limited so-called stand-alone emotional distress damages to two specific situations: (1) instances where the person at fault intentionally caused the victim’s emotional distress; and (2) events where the person suffered emotional distress as a result of witnessing someone else’s death or serious injury.
However, the law has begun to reflect a more contemporary understanding of mental health and trauma. Increasingly, courts allow trauma victims to seek damages for their emotional distress, such as PTSD, in a broad array of circumstances independent of physical injuries.
In this evolving area of law, you can’t necessarily trust articles or internet posts from just a few years ago on the topic. Even if you suffered only minor physical injuries in a car accident or even no injuries at all, there’s a growing likelihood nationwide that you have the right to seek compensation for the pain and disruption your crash-related PTSD has inflicted on your life.
What’s the value of a car accident PTSD claim?
The amount a person can seek as damages for car accident-related PTSD varies from case to case, depending on numerous factors. And there’s often a distinction between the amount you can claim and the amount you have a realistic shot at obtaining through a settlement or court award. Here’s what that means.
Elements of a PTSD Damages Claim
PTSD can take a heavy toll on virtually every aspect of your life. You deserve compensation for all of that harm.
For example, you might claim compensation for:
- Costs of PTSD treatments like medication and therapy
- Diminished earnings due to PTSD preventing you from working
- Emotionally distressing PTSD symptoms
- Daily inconvenience and disruption caused by PTSD
- Damage to relationships caused by PTSD
As you can see, PTSD can cause economic and non-economic damages. Proving the economic impact of PTSD generally involves producing documentation of your expenses and financial losses. Proving the non-economic impact, in contrast, frequently involves witness testimony describing the challenges you face and your prognosis for making a full recovery.
Practical Factors Affecting the Value of a PTSD Damages Claim
The elements above reflect the total value of a potential claim for PTSD damages. But a claim can also face practical hurdles that affect its value. For that reason, the total value of a claim might differ from the amount you can realistically expect to receive.
One practical factor affecting claim value is the strength of your case. To have the right to claim compensation, your lawyer must have the ability to prove that someone else wrongfully caused the car accident constituting your trauma, that the accident led to your PTSD, and that your PTSD has had a demonstrably negative impact on your life.
Proving those facts requires evidence and skilled advocacy. So, the more high-quality evidence your lawyer can collect and the more convincing the arguments your lawyer can make, the stronger your case and the better your odds of achieving a top-dollar settlement or court award.
The financial resources available to the party who owes you damages constitute another practical factor to consider in valuing a car accident PTSD claim. Most car accident claims seek payment under the at-fault party’s liability insurance policy.
Therefore, the amount of that policy can bear the amount you might recover. You might have a good shot at full compensation if you suffered $100,000 in proven damages and the at-fault party carries $200,000 in coverage. But if the at-fault party only carries $50,000 in coverage, that might represent the maximum you can realistically hope to receive.
A Lawyer’s Role in a Car Accident PTSD Case
Car accident victims with PTSD should put their claims in the hands of an experienced car accident injury lawyer. A lawyer’s job is to handle all aspects of pursuing compensation so that their client the injured crash victim with PTSD can focus on healing from trauma.
A lawyer’s steps to obtain compensation for a person who has PTSD after a car accident can vary.
But a skilled lawyer will usually have the capacity to:
- Investigate the car accident to identify its causes and the parties who should pay damages
- Interact with their client’s medical team to understand the PTSD diagnosis and prognosis
- Evaluate the full scope of harm that PTSD and any other injuries have inflicted on their client’s life
- Analyze insurance policies to assess whether and for how much they cover PTSD-related losses
- Prepare, file, and pursue lawsuits or insurance claims for compensation on their client’s behalf
- Negotiate with defense lawyers and insurance companies to achieve a claim settlement if possible
- Advocate for their client in court, including by going to trial and proving a case to a judge and jury
- Collect and distribute all funds due to a client suffering from PTSD
Lawyers for car accident-related PTSD victims routinely represent clients on a contingent fee basis. They do not collect fees from their client upfront or as a case proceeds. Instead, their fee consists of a percentage of the funds they succeed in securing on their client’s behalf. They only get paid, in other words, if they deliver favorable results.
Tips for Protecting Your Rights While Living With Crash-Related PTSD
A person’s steps after getting into a car accident can affect their future legal rights and financial interests. Here are two tips to help you make decisions safeguarding your ability to pursue compensation for crash-related PTSD.
Seek Appropriate Mental Healthcare Promptly
One of the many challenges of PTSD is that symptoms develop over months or years. Often, people with PTSD struggle to pinpoint the trauma that led to the onset of the disorder. In the case of a car accident, for instance, PTSD symptoms may not appear until long after your physical injuries have healed.
That’s why lawyers encourage anyone who has had a traumatic car accident experience to seek appropriate mental healthcare promptly, especially if symptoms common to PTSD have started to crop up. Prompt treatment is essential for many reasons: most critically because PTSD can lead to a downward spiral if left unaddressed, but also because the sooner you obtain a diagnosis, the better the chances of linking your PTSD to the accident and the lower the risk of missing a deadline for taking legal action.
Approach Insurance Settlements Cautiously and With the Help of a Skilled Lawyer
Car accidents commonly trigger coverage under insurance policies. After a crash, your or someone else’s insurance company may offer to settle your potential damages claim. Approach any such settlements with caution and the assistance of a skilled attorney.
A settlement is an agreement to resolve a legal claim. In car accident cases, a typical settlement consists of an insurance company paying the crash victim a sum of money in exchange for the victim releasing the insurer, the at-fault party, and others from further liability.
Settlements tend to be final. Once signed, sealed, and delivered, they can’t be reopened. It’s critical to ensure a settlement covers the mental health effects of a trauma appropriately so that the victim has the financial support needed to get help and heal.
Before agreeing to any settlement or signing any documents from an insurance company, discuss your situation with an experienced car accident attorney. Be sure to describe your trauma and any symptoms potentially associated with PTSD. A skilled attorney can handle all settlement discussions with an insurance company to ensure you receive appropriate compensation and that your rights to payment for PTSD-related damage remain protected.
Contact a Car Accident Attorney Today
If you or someone you love survived a traumatic car accident, stay alert to the potential signs and symptoms of PTSD. You may have the right to pursue significant financial compensation for the harm PTSD does to your life. To learn more, contact an experienced personal injury attorney in New York today for your free case consultation.