Mental anguish is a legal term that refers to a strong degree of psychological injury that a person suffers as the result of a traumatic experience. Mental anguish is an important part of claims for both negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress. These two types of claims are often linked to other personal injury lawsuits also.
How is Mental Anguish Defined?
Mental anguish is characterized as emotional pain or psychological symptoms that arise as a result of another person’s negligence. To meet the legal definition, a person’s anguish needs to be more severe than ordinary disappointment, embarrassment, anger or upset.
Mental anguish in the law has been described as an extreme feeling of fear and grief that causes lasting negative side-effects. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder are examples of the kind of mental states that can qualify as mental anguish. Usually the mental anguish must be more than just emotional. It must manifest itself in the daily activities of a person’s life.
The symptoms of mental anguish can be any of the following:
- Phobias: fear of engaging in certain activities because the victim is afraid of being injured again; an example would be agoraphobia, a fear of leaving one’s home;
- Anxiety: extreme anxiety of the type that interferes with a person’s ability to engage in the usual activities of everyday life; it might involve symptoms such as panic attacks;
- Depression: depression so significant that it requires a doctor’s care;
- Insomnia: an inability to sleep normally;
- Inability to concentrate: the victim may suffer consequences because they cannot focus on their job, academic studies or other activities; and
- Physical symptoms: a person may have physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea or tremors.
Proving the degree of psychological harm that qualifies as mental anguish would probably be strengthened by the testimony of a licensed physician.
What Kind of Lawsuit Includes Mental Anguish?
Mental anguish is an element of claims of both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Mental anguish is part of the damage alleged by a person who is the victim of the infliction of emotional distress, whether negligent or intentional.
Mental anguish could also be an element of the damage alleged in other claims, such as battery, assault, an auto accident or medical malpractice. For example, if a person threatens another with serious bodily harm by pointing a gun at them, which is an assault, the trauma will likely cause injury that is more psychological than physical.
Mental anguish can also accompany significant physical injury. For example, a person can experience severe anxiety and depression after a serious medical error injures them physically, possibly affecting the quality of their life permanently.
One person can also suffer mental anguish from injury to another person, for example, losing a family member in a car crash that results in a wrongful death suit. Emotional distress is often the result when a person witnesses the harming or injuring of a loved one.
How to Calculate Damages for Mental Anguish
Any monetary award of damages for mental anguish is classified as a type of non-economic damage. Economic damages are sums of money awarded to compensate for actual financial losses suffered by a victim or their family. They include such items as medical bills, lost wages, and property damage.
Non-economic damages are given for losses that are not clearly economic, such as pain and suffering, loss of companionship, loss of reputation, and mental anguish. There is no specific formula for calculating a monetary award for non-economic losses. Every state approaches the problem in a different way.
If a claim for mental anguish, however, includes a claim for medical treatment of a symptom of the anguish, e.g. for depression or anxiety, then the cost of treatment or wages lost because the victim was unable to work could be recovered.
In recent years many states have implemented laws that cap the amount of non-economic damages a plaintiff can receive. An experienced personal injury lawyer would know the law in the state where a person lives and would be able to calculate the value of a claim for mental anguish.
How to Prove Mental Anguish
In most civil cases, a plaintiff must prove the defendant’s negligence by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the negligence was more likely than not. This is known as the standard of proof. This is not the same degree of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” that applies in criminal cases. However, if the plaintiff cannot meet this burden, they may fail to recover damages. Proving the defendant’s negligence is the first step in a claim for damages for mental anguish.
Evidence of the extreme nature of the defendant’s negligence or intentional misconduct makes success for a claim of emotional distress more likely. Also evidence of the intense and severe suffering of the plaintiff helps establish the injury.
The following types of evidence contribute to establishing the severity of mental anguish:
- Treatment by a physician: If the injured person has sought treatment for their condition from a licensed physician, evidence of the treatment strengthens their claim. Evidence would be medical records of doctor’s visits, records of prescriptions and other documentation of intervention by a medical professional;
- Duration of symptoms: the longer the injured person suffers from symptoms of mental anguish, the more likely it is that the court will consider the condition severe enough to justify an award of damages;
- Severity of symptoms: evidence to show that the symptoms were severe will support the success of a claim for mental anguish; and
- Physical harm: evidence to show that there was a physical manifestation of a person’s mental anguish makes the claim more convincing; also, if the victim of mental anguish was injured physically, the claim of mental anguish is strengthened.
The severity of mental anguish is most effectively shown if it manifests as a diagnosable condition, such as depression, PTSD, or acute anxiety. It would be advantageous to have the testimony of a doctor to support a diagnosis.
The person who suffers mental anguish should also keep a journal of their experience, recording such information as: the nature of the symptoms suffered, when symptoms started, how the person experienced the symptoms, what effect they had on the person’s daily activities and what treatment was sought, if any.
What is the Difference Between Mental Health vs Mental Anguish?
Courts have held that mental anguish is different from mental health. Underlying mental health issues cannot be used as evidence by the defendant in a case in which a person claims mental anguish as part of their damages.
However, if a plaintiff who alleges mental anguish offers proof that they sought a diagnosis and treatment from a physician, then the defendant may well be able to get access to the plaintiff’s past medical records. In that case, past treatment for a mental health issue could come to light.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Am Looking to Recover Damages for Mental Anguish?
If you want to claim damages for mental anguish, it is advisable to consult an experienced personal injury attorney. An experienced attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of claiming mental anguish. They can help quantify the amount that is adequate to compensate you for mental anguish and will know if the law in your state limits damages for mental anguish.
Producing convincing proof of mental anguish can be challenging. Making good use of the services of an experienced personal injury attorney is the best way to maximize your chances of recovery during a stressful time.