Successful litigation of personal injury cases requires a compassionate, personal interest in each case. Such torts can extend beyond the bodily injuries or wrongful deaths typically associated with personal injury law. Many personal injury suits seek compensation for harm that left no physical trace: emotional distress. While often as painful and life-changing as bodily injury, emotional distress can be difficult to prove legally, due to its nonphysical nature. In order to win compensation, a personal injury attorney must possess an intimate knowledge of the nature of emotional distress form a legal standpoint. Who better understands this than the firm that set the precedent for emotional distress claims in New York State?
Emotional distress is defined as “a highly unpleasant emotional reaction (such as anguish, humiliation, or fury) which results from another’s conduct and for which damages may be sought.” Prior to 1961, however, New York State law did not recognize emotional distress as a form of personal injury. Segan Nemerov & Singer founding partner, Leon Segan, saw an opportunity to change that.
In Battalla v. State, Segan litigated on behalf of an infant Plaintiff, Carmen Battalla, who had been improperly buckled into a ski lift by a state employee and subsequently suffered “severe emotional and neurological disturbances with residual physical manifestations” when she became frightened upon the lift’s descent. Battalla v. State, Lexis Nexis, 10 N.Y.2d 237, 219 N.Y.S.2d 34, 176 N.E.2d 729 (1961) The Court of Claims ruled in favor of the Plaintiff. However, the Appellate Division reversed the ruling and dismissed the claim. Undeterred, Segan argued the case before the Court of Appeals, which reversed the ruling of the Appellate Division and reinstated that of the Court of Claims, thus setting a precedent for the inclusion of emotional distress in personal injury claims.
There are two circumstances under which claims of emotional distress can be made in a personal injury case: those instances in which distress is caused as an unintentional byproduct of a physical wrongdoing and those in which distress is purposefully inflicted with the explicit intent of causing pain or is the result of gross negligence. Unintentional emotional distress can become a major part of a larger personal injury suit.
Take, for example, a plaintiff who was injured in an automobile accident and requires surgeries and extensive physical therapy in order to regain full mobility. In addition to suing for damages to compensate for medical expenses and pain and suffering, one could include emotional distress in the suit and seek damages for the depression associated with having diminished physical abilities and the difficulties now faced in daily life. Inability to sleep, due to pain, and psychological trauma, such as a fear of driving, stemming from the accident itself could also be considered emotional distress, provided they are the result of a physical injury.
Any claim of emotional distress must be supported by documented medical treatment. Medical documentation of psychological symptoms can be submitted as evidence along with personal journal entries detailing the plaintiff’s emotional and psychological state and the subsequent effects on daily life. Equally as important is the ability to establish that the emotional distress is occurring as a direct result of the injury caused by the defendant and that the distress is ongoing.
Although claims of emotional distress might be questioned by the defendant’s legal team, the truth is that emotional distress is a very serious matter. Physical injuries can heal with time, and medical bills get paid. Emotional and psychological trauma can persist for years or even a lifetime, however. To learn more about the role emotional distress plays in personal injury law, click here.