Can You Recover Damages for PTSD After an Accident?

mental anguish ptsd lawsuit

A lawsuit can’t cure your mental anguish or PTSD, but it can ease your financial burden that results from how the condition has affected your life.

PTSD and mental anguish are psychological conditions that can be the result of witnessing or experiencing trauma. If you meet the criteria for one of these diagnoses, you might be able to sue the liable party for your injury. Here’s what you need to know in order to be compensated for a PTSD or mental anguish claim.

After an accident, your physical injuries might be just the beginning of your recovery process. A physical injury is usually easy to see, diagnose and prove, especially when you have medical reports that detail your treatment.

Emotional trauma isn’t always visible, and sometimes even the injured person doesn’t fully understand the depth of their psychological injuries — and emotional damage could last for years, or even a lifetime, after an accident.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”

People who experience trauma will have a wide range of reactions, but most will eventually recover from emotional symptoms. Other people will continue to experience emotional trauma, including feeling stressed or afraid even when they’re not in danger, which could lead to a diagnosis of PTSD.

PTSD can begin immediately or within a few months following a traumatic event, or they could surface many years later. In order to be diagnosed as PTSD, symptoms must:

  • Last longer than one month, and
  • Interfere with relationships or work.

Some people experience short-term PTSD and others have a chronic condition.

These symptoms are included as part of a PTSD diagnosis:

Re-experiencing symptoms

  • Flashbacks
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts

Avoidance symptoms

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that serve as reminders of the original trauma
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Arousal and reactivity symptoms

  • Being easily startled
  • Tension, or feeling edgy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Angry outbursts

Cognition and mood symptoms

  • Trouble remembering the details of the trauma
  • Negative thoughts
  • Distortion of guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in activities you’d normally enjoy

PTSD symptoms in children and teens

Very young children:

  • Bedwetting
  • Forgetting how to talk
  • Acting out scary events while playing
  • Being unusually clingy to well-known adults
Teens and older children:

  • Disruptive, destructive, or disrespectful behavior
  • Guilt (for not preventing the traumatic event)
  • Revenge thoughts or fantasies

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

An adult must have all of the following symptoms lasting for at least 1 month in order to have a PTSD diagnosis:

  • 1 re-experiencing symptom
  • 1 avoidance symptom
  • 2 arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • 2 cognition and mood symptoms

PTSD is normally diagnosed by a doctor who specializes in mental health, like a psychiatrist or psychologist.

What is mental anguish and emotional distress?

Mental anguish and emotional distress conditions don’t have a list of specific symptoms like PTSD, but they’re still mental conditions for which you can recover damages based on the psychological impact of your injury.

There’s no specific definition for emotional distress, but symptoms could include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Depression
  • Humiliation
  • Grief

If you’ve been in an accident that caused emotional distress, try keeping a journal or log to record how you’re feeling each day. It can be important evidence to document how your life has been affected by your injuries or as a result of the accident.

Post-Accident Journal Form
Sample accident journal/diary to help you document the effect on your daily life
Download in PDF format

Can I sue for PTSD?

You can sue for PTSD as the basis for an emotional distress claim in a personal injury lawsuit.

The plaintiff must demonstrate mental anguish by showing that their extreme feelings of fear, grief, etc. have resulted in long-lasting negative effects.

In most personal injury lawsuits, the jury will first make a determination that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s physical injuries and then address psychological injuries as part of the damages phase of the trial. 

Like any personal injury claim, you need to prove three essential elements to recover damages:

  1. There was an actual injury.
  2. The injury was caused by the defendant’s negligence.
  3. The injury resulted in financial costs.

PTSD is an actual injury, but sometimes mental health diagnoses are more difficult to prove than a physical injury. When you have a broken bone, internal organ damage, or other physical harm, these things can be shown by presenting MRIs, X-rays, and other diagnostics that clearly demonstrate the nature and severity of the injury.

Emotional injury doesn’t “appear” on a medical test. You might have experts who disagree on whether the patient has diagnosable PTSD. Your lawyer will need to present compelling evidence of actions or behaviors that demonstrate that you meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

How is PTSD proven in court?

There are 2 kinds of witnesses in a trial: fact witnesses and expert witnesses.

A fact witness testifies about their own observations specifically about what happened in the case. An expert witness testifies about what they believe based on the evidence that was presented to them, which is related to their knowledge and experience in their field of expertise.

The average jury member isn’t qualified to judge whether a plaintiff has PTSD. They’ll rely heavily on expert testimony. But the expert can’t just say — even under oath — that the plaintiff has PTSD in order to convince a jury. The expert must provide evidence that explains to the jury why they believe the plaintiff has PTSD.

The plaintiff’s own therapist might be both a fact witness and an expert witness if they’ve personally observed the plaintiff demonstrating the symptoms of PTSD or if they’ve treated the plaintiff for the condition based on the plaintiff’s descriptions of their thoughts and behaviors.

Some experts will claim that PTSD can only be caused by a large-scale traumatic event. Others say that PTSD can be caused by a variety of events, and what might not seem traumatic to one person could be intensely triggering for another.

Ultimately, if you’re the plaintiff in a PTSD personal injury lawsuit, the jury will decide whether your lawyer has presented enough evidence that you have PTSD.

Enjuris tip: Your case might hinge on the testimony of an expert witness to show that you’re experiencing PTSD. Read more about expert witnesses.

Expert witness testimony varies by state

It’s important to note the differences in how states treat expert witness testimony. Some states will allow an expert to provide an “ultimate opinion,” where the expert is allowed to give a diagnosis of PTSD. In other states, an ultimate opinion isn’t permitted. In those cases, the jury must decide on its own from the medical evidence whether the plaintiff has PTSD.

Making a PTSD claim for a workplace injury

An injury that happens at work is usually covered under a workers’ compensation claim. The goal of the workers’ compensation system is that it provides no-fault benefits to any worker injured on the job. It also insulates the employer from liability, which means the employer’s insurance pays the claim and the injured worker isn’t permitted to sue the employer for their injuries.

A PTSD claim can be covered under workers’ compensation in some states.

What kinds of PTSD injuries happen in the workplace?

Workers who are exposed to particularly traumatic events are more likely to experience PTSD from a workplace event — police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, first responders and other people who work in high-stress or dangerous environments are at higher risk.

PTSD can also occur in someone who witnesses a tragic or frightening event at work, like seeing a fellow employee die or suffer serious injury in a workplace accident.

An employee can file a workers’ compensation claim for PTSD without an accompanying physical injury in some states. Each state has its own rules for when PTSD is compensable under workers’ compensation.

It’s important to be aware of the workers’ compensation statutes of limitations in your state. In most states, the statute of limitations begins to run when an injury is diagnosed or when the person should have been reasonably aware of the presence of the injury. PTSD can’t be diagnosed until a certain amount of time has passed because, by definition, it relates to ongoing or long-lasting symptoms.

If you make a claim for workplace-related PTSD, you can receive benefits for medical treatment related to the condition, compensation for permanent mental health impairment, lost wages, and any other benefits to which you’d be entitled for a physical injury through a workers’ compensation claim.

Claiming disability benefits for PTSD

There are specific requirements you must meet in order to qualify for PTSD disability benefits.

Your medical records must show you suffer from at least 1 of the following:

  • You remember a traumatic experience.
  • You have recurring obsessions or compulsions.
  • You have an irrational fear of a situation, object, or activity that causes you to compulsively avoid it.
  • You have severe panic attacks an average of once a week.
  • You have generalized persistent anxiety accompanied by 3 or more of these specific physical symptoms: shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, dry mouth, cold hands, dizziness, apprehension, motor tension, increased startling, or impaired concentration.

You also must show at least 2 of these symptoms:

  • You are restricted in your normal daily activities.
  • You have difficulty maintaining social functioning.
  • You have difficulty maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.
  • You have repeated decompensation or psychiatric symptoms that last for a long time.

If you don’t have 2 of those symptoms, you can also make a disability claim for PTSD if your medical records prove that the PTSD results in your inability to function on your own outside your home.

Enjuris tip: Read more about how to claim social security disability benefits.

PTSD and car accident damages

A car accident can be a traumatic event, even if you weren’t physically injured. PTSD could arise for a person in an accident who wasn’t injured but who witnessed injury to others. It could also be part of a wrongful death lawsuit if your PTSD is the result of witnessing a family member’s death in an accident.

In a personal injury lawsuit, you can recover economic and non-economic damages.

Economic damages are those with a specific financial value — like medical treatment and lost wages. Non-economic damages don’t have a specific monetary value, so they include pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and other emotional injury.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, your costs become economic damages. You likely have costs related to therapy, medication, or lost time from work. Those items can be calculated and compensated the same as they would be for any physical injury.

How PTSD damages are calculated

These 5 factors would be considered in calculating damages for PTSD:

  1. Severity of injuries. You might not have severe physical injury from the trauma itself, but the PTSD can result in physical and psychological issues that are long-lasting and require ongoing treatment or inpatient care.
  2. Lost wages or decreased earning capacity. If a doctor determines that PTSD has decreased your ability to work, you can claim damages for lost wages.
  3. Pain and suffering. There are two methods used to determine what a plaintiff can recover in pain and suffering damages.

    1. Multiplier method: This calculation takes the amount of medical expenses and multiplies by a negotiated figure between 1.5 and 5, based on the severity of the trauma, in order to reach a figure for pain and suffering.
    2. Per diem method: “Per diem” means “per day.” States that use the daily rate would use a figure such as your average daily rate of pay and multiply it by the number of days you’re likely to experience pain and suffering.
  4. Punitive damages. Punitive damages are added to a personal injury award in order to punish the defendant for an especially egregious or malicious act that caused the injury.
  5. Insurance and assets. Often, the amount of damages for a pain and suffering lawsuit can be influenced by whether the defendant’s insurance policy can cover the cost, or whether the defendant has assets in the amount of the award.

Is it worth it to file an injury claim for PTSD?

Only the person with PTSD can determine if it’s the right course of action for them.

There is a potential for a large settlement or jury verdict in a PTSD personal injury case. However, it does require that the plaintiff’s medical and emotional history is put “on the stand” for the jury to evaluate. It could be painful for a plaintiff with PTSD to have to testify on their own behalf, and you might want to ask your lawyer about that possibility ahead of time.

Often, physical injuries from an accident are noticeable immediately or shortly following an accident. But PTSD could take a while to diagnose. Sometimes, that means the damages weren’t included in an initial personal injury claim or that the statute of limitations has passed by the time the PTSD is diagnosed.

Your lawyer would also need to prove that in addition to your actually suffering from PTSD, that the condition is the direct result of the accident. Any claim your lawyer makes is going to be refuted by the defense attorneys. That’s not to suggest that you shouldn’t pursue a PTSD lawsuit — but it’s important to discuss it with your lawyer and your mental health provider first.

Finding a lawyer for a PTSD lawsuit

Selecting the right lawyer is like choosing a doctor or therapist — you need to feel comfortable sharing your medical history, what you hope to achieve, and how you feel today.

Especially if your claim is for PTSD or some other kind of mental anguish, it’s going to be especially important that you’re able to freely share your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with your lawyer. You don’t want to minimize what you’re going through because doing so doesn’t help your case. You’ll want to be truthful with your lawyer about how your mental state is affecting your everyday life.

Your lawyer should demonstrate empathy for what you’re experiencing, along with an understanding of how PTSD cases have been treated in your state courts.

These cases can be more complicated than other types of claims because mental health issues aren’t always visible to a judge or jury. Your medical history — both physical and mental — will be called into question and your lawyer will need to be prepared to demonstrate why you deserve to recover damages based on emotional trauma.

Please feel free to use the free Enjuris Personal Injury Lawyer Directory to find a lawyer near you who can help with your PTSD claim. Enjuris also offers these resources:

Personal Injury Attorney Interview Sheet
Worksheet with questions to ask a personal injury attorney to help determine if he or she will be a good fit for your case
Download in PDF format


Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.

Tell your story:
Tell your story - What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.

Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.