Emotional Distress in Massachusetts Personal Injury Claims

A necessary element in any personal injury claim in Massachusetts is that of damages such as economic losses from medical expenses and loss of earnings that are categorized as special damages. Another aspect of damages are general damages that are subjective. Included in this category is emotional distress that juries often award in substantial amounts.

Emotional distress may be inflicted by negligent or intentional acts but most personal injury claims where emotional distress damages are claimed are negligently inflicted.  For example, in a car accident where a driver negligently drove his car by speeding, making an unsafe lane change, driving the wrong way on one-way street, or driving too closely to another vehicle and collided with another vehicle, the injured parties might claim negligent infliction of emotional distress. 

However, there are certain rules that the Massachusetts courts have crafted to ensure that only certain parties may claim this aspect of general damages.  In most cases, only the party that suffered a physical injury may claim emotional distress damages unless other factors are at play.  Insurance companies certainly look at it that way.  

In cases where a party did not experience any physical injury from another party’s negligent or intentional act, that person might claim emotional distress damages if he/she observed a close, personal relative being injured by the negligent or intentional act.  A classic example is a parent observing her child being struck by a vehicle while crossing the street or is present where a sibling or parent waiting their turn for a ride at an amusement park sees the ride collapse that injures or kills a relative.  In these examples, the parties claiming emotional distress damages were in the danger zone of the incident. 

There are other criteria for plaintiffs to claim such damages:

  1. The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and breached that duty by speeding, failing to stop for a red light, driving too close to a bicyclist, or failing to safely maintain a ride at an amusement park. The plaintiff may be the person harmed or is a close, personal relative to the person harmed who witnessed the relative being injured as a result of the defendant’s failure to meet the necessary standard of care.
  2. The defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff emotional distress. To prove this, a personal injury attorney may need the testimony or reports of mental health providers such as psychologists or psychiatrists to confirm the claimed distress and how it has affected that person’s life.  Note, the defendant and his/her insurance company will need your medical records from your treating providers to prove this.
  3. The defendant’s negligence was the only or sole cause in the plaintiff suffering emotional distress. In other words, the plaintiff would not have suffered emotional damages but for the defendant’s negligence.  Note that if you had prior mental health issues, but the negligence of the defendant exacerbated those issues, and your mental health provider confirms this, that would be a measure of damages too.  
  4. The finder of fact would conclude that a reasonable person experiencing the same incident would have suffered emotional distress. For instance, would a reasonable person under the same or similar circumstances such as observing their son suffering serious injuries from the breakdown of an amusement ride have experienced emotional distress. 
  5. The plaintiff’s emotional distress resulted in physical symptoms or harm unless the emotional distress was intentionally inflicted such as from being robbed at gunpoint. 

Proving Emotional Distress

Emotional distress damages are real but are often the most difficult of damages to prove and substantiate. Your personal injury attorney will need to obtain the testimony, records, and reports of any mental health professional that you consulted for symptoms directly resulting from the physical injuries you sustained or from the incident you witnessed, provided that you had a familial relationship with the person you observed being seriously injured or killed and can demonstrate some physical harm. 

Physical harm is a necessary criterion, but this can be shown by trouble sleeping, feelings of extreme anxiety, an inability to work or do school work, having flashbacks, or suffering symptoms of PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.  Some plaintiffs may develop ulcers from the stress or anxiety.  Your medical provider needs to confirm this.  

Testimony from family members, close friends, or coworkers demonstrating a change in mood or personality of the plaintiff can be powerful evidence of emotional distress. For example, witnesses may testify that the plaintiff, known for her patience, gentleness, and attention to detail, is now seen in the months following the accident as impatient, aggressive, moody, and overlooking details that is detrimental to her work.  Persons suffering from emotional distress or PTSD may start drinking heavily or turn to drugs. Expert testimony from psychiatrists or psychologists who regularly treat PTSD patients is needed to sufficiently prove that the plaintiff has symptoms that are validly recognized. 

It can help if the plaintiff maintains a diary of her medications, expenses, and symptoms on a daily basis to show the progression of her symptoms and how her distress has negatively affected her social contacts, work, and any other aspects of her life. 

Retain the Law Office of Burns and Jain

It is never recommended that you handle a serious personal injury claim on your own. Only a highly experienced personal injury attorney from Burns and Jain can give you the best opportunity to obtain the most compensation for your claim. Contact us at (617) 277-7423 for a free consultation about your claim.