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Can I Get Compensation for Emotional Distress?

A medical injury caused by negligent medical care can be traumatizing. Some medical malpractice accidents result in permanent scarring, loss of function, or disability. For the rest of the patient’s life, they have to live with the painful memories of being permanently injured because a doctor didn’t follow the rules. 

Emotional distress, anxiety, and trauma are all very real consequences of a medical error. When doctors fail to follow the standards of care and it causes injury to a patient, suffering emotional distress is a foreseeable result of negligent medical care. As a result, the doctor should be liable for damages for causing the patient’s distress.

Because of emotional distress, many patients feel overwhelmed or too depressed to think about going through a malpractice claim. An experienced medical malpractice team understands the difficult times you are going through and will be able to help you through the process so you can get the compensation you are owed. Contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm for help. 

What Is Emotional Distress?

Everyone goes through some stressful moments but sometimes the mental toll can be too great and cause serious emotional harm. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), most stress is temporary but in some cases, “symptoms may last for weeks or even months and may influence their relationships with families and friends.”

Emotional distress can come from a variety of situations, including physical injury, natural disasters, or witnessing violence. Emotional distress can also follow traumatic events like a surgery gone wrong, wrong-site surgery, foreign object left-behind surgery, or abuse at the hands of a trusted doctor. 

Emotional distress is not just in someone’s head. It can have physical manifestations and negatively impact relationships and well-being. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), warning signs of emotional distress can include: 

  • “Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and things
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomach aches or headaches
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or using drugs, including prescription medications
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else
  • Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life”

Long-Term Effects of Emotional Distress

The mental damage caused by stressful events can have long-lasting effects. Even after a stressful event, the individual can suffer distress for years to come. There are also “trigger events” that can take the individual right back to that traumatic event, even something as simple as a name, a word, or a sound. 

In some cases, a stressful event like a negligent surgical error can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD “is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” 

PTSD can be ongoing or a chronic condition. Symptoms can interfere with work, relationships, and physical health. Cognitive symptoms can include: 

Treatment options can include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of therapies. Some individuals suffering emotional distress may require ongoing treatment for years. When this trauma was caused by a medical error, the doctor or hospital responsible should be required to cover the costs of continuing medical care that was caused by medical negligence.

How Do You Calculate Emotional Distress Compensation?

Calculating emotional distress after a medical injury can be difficult. How can you put a price on something that can be difficult to put into words? There are a few ways to think about emotional distress and how a medical malpractice award can account for some of the damage. Emotional distress has mental impacts as well as real-world impacts. 

Work and Study Damage of Emotional Distress 

Emotional distress can impact the academics of a young person and the workplace for others. According to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, “Mood is strongly correlated to motivation, concentration, and energy levels. Prolonged dips in mood can greatly impact a student’s ability to study and perform,” additionally, “because course grades are so dependent on performance on tests, presentations, and projects, debilitating anxiety can greatly interfere with academic success.”

Severe emotional distress can also impact your job, requiring days off of work where you cannot earn an income. Mood can impact work performance. Some individuals may not be able to do the same job after a severely stressful event, leaving them disabled and unable to maintain gainful employment. A medical malpractice lawsuit should take into effect any impact the distress has on employment, education, and income.  

Relationship Damage of Emotional Distress 

It is not just the injury victim who has to deal with the emotional distress of a medical mistake. Loved ones, spouses, family members, and children may be impacted by emotional distress. Depression and anxiety can negatively impact relationships and be expressed as anger and conflict. In times of the injury victim’s greatest need, their stress can make it more difficult for others to provide the support needed. 

Counseling and Mental Health Treatment 

Like other personal injury lawsuits, medical malpractice claims often include medical bills in the damages assessment. Mental health treatment should be included in the costs of medical care just like treatments to address physical injuries. Mental health treatment costs can include medication, psychotherapy, and other treatment options. 

Continuing Mental Health Treatment 

PTSD and emotional distress are not something that you can fix with a simple treatment or medication. It can take years of treatment and trying out different therapies to find the best option for the individual patient. In many cases, treatment is used not to cure the patient but to help them manage their mental distress. The continuing costs of treatment for the foreseeable future should be included in the costs of a medical malpractice award. 

Accounting for Pain and Suffering

Pain and suffering have a heavy price on an individual’s mental and physical well-being. Pain and suffering caused by negligence should be compensated by the doctors, surgeons, and hospitals responsible for causing the injury. If you have questions about pain and suffering or other damages caused by a medical error, talk to your medical malpractice attorney for advice. 

Emotional Distress of the Injury Victim

In most medical malpractice cases that involve emotional distress, it is the injury victim that is seeking compensation. If you imagine a scenario where the patient goes into the hospital to have a cancerous left kidney removed. After recovering from anesthesia, the patient wakes up to find there is a scar on their right side. The doctor may have committed one of the worst types of “never events.” 

A wrong-site, wrong-side, wrong-procedure, or wrong-patient surgical error is known as a never event because it is the type of injury that never happens unless there was negligence. Wrong-site surgical errors are often caused by doctors, hospitals, or clinics that fail to follow proper check-in and time-out procedures. 

For a patient who wakes up finding that the doctor removed the healthy kidney and left it in the diseased kidney, how will they react? Not only will the patient require an additional surgery to remove the cancerous kidney but they will no longer have a functioning kidney and may require dialysis for the rest of their lives. 

For emotional distress, the patient may be thinking about how their life will be forever changed, without a functioning kidney and being limited in their ability to live a normal life. Anytime the patient sees the scars, they may be triggered and feel the distress they felt when they first woke up from the negligent surgery. Anytime the patient feels weak or tired because they no longer have kidney function, they may feel depressed and distressed simply because a surgical team did not follow their own surgical protocols. 

Emotional Distress of Parents in a Birth Injury Lawsuit

Emotional distress can go beyond the patient. This is common in birth injury accidents where the parents suffer severe emotional distress. After going through pregnancy, the parents may be expecting a healthy baby to be delivered but a delivery error causes the child to suffer brain damage because of an improper delivery, delayed delivery, or lack of oxygen causing hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). 

Many birth injuries are life-long injuries that the child will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Parents will also have to deal with their child’s severe birth injuries for the remainder of their lives, including making plans for who will care for their child after they are no longer able to. This can take a serious toll on parents, who may also be stressed about the financial costs of caring for their child, caring for other children, or having to leave their job to care for their child. 

What Damages Are Available in a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?

The term “damages” refers to the losses associated with a medical malpractice lawsuit. These are also known as “compensatory damages,” that are intended to compensate the victim to put them into a similar position they would be but-for the accident. Since there is no way to reverse a serious malpractice injury, damages are in the form of a financial award.  

In general, damages in a malpractice lawsuit are categorized as economic damages and non-economic damages. 

Economic Damages

Economic damages include costs and losses caused by the injury, including past, present, and future costs. The most common types of economic damages include:

Other types of economic damages can include home and vehicle modifications for disabled patients, costs of physical therapy or occupational therapy, mobility devices, and medication. 

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages can include losses that are associated with the injury but may not have a set financial value. Examples of non-economic damages include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Disfigurement and scarring
  • Loss of a limb or body part
  • Paralysis
  • Loss of enjoyment in life
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Family loss of companionship
  • Loss of consortium

Compensation for emotional distress generally comes under non-economic damages. However, the effects of emotional distress can include economic damages, including lost income for not being able to work because of the distress and medical costs for economic distress treatment. 

Is There a Limit for Emotional Distress Damages?

There is an important distinction between economic damages and non-economic damages because non-economic damages in some states are capped to a maximum amount. That means that if a jury awards an injury victim over the amount of noneconomic damages allowed, the judge will reduce the injury victim’s financial award. 

Damage caps are supported by the insurance and healthcare industry at the expense of injury victims and their families. Unfortunately, politicians get a lot of money from the healthcare lobbies to push their agenda, which reduces compensation awards for injury victims. About half of states have some cap on non-economic damages, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia

Other states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. do not have caps on damages because the states understand the importance of the injury victim’s rights after they suffer a serious injury caused by negligent healthcare.

Emotional Distress in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

When a medical error goes seriously wrong, the patient may never recover. If the injury victim is not alive to hold the doctors accountable, then no one can file a medical malpractice lawsuit for damages. Instead, the estate or certain family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover damages in place of the deceased. Damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit can include:

  • Burial costs
  • Funeral expenses
  • Loss of financial support
  • Loss of services (such as cooking, cleaning, and other contributions to the family unit)
  • Loss of parental guidance

In some wrongful death lawsuits, the surviving family members can recover damages for emotional distress to compensate them for the impact the death had on their life, livelihood, and well-being. Death of a loved one, especially when caused by an avoidable accident, can be traumatic. A spouse, loved one, parents, or children can all suffer negatively after a loved one’s death. 

How Can a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Help?

The doctors and hospitals may not be responsive to your needs after a medical injury. The hospital may try to deny responsibility or question your distress after suffering at the hands of a negligent doctor. An experienced medical malpractice attorney will take your case seriously and deal directly with doctors and hospitals so you don’t have to. 

The right medical malpractice team has experience with injury victims and their families and understands what a traumatic experience it can be. Your attorney can help you understand the process and make sure you get compensated for all your losses, including for emotional distress.

Contact experienced trial attorneys who have successfully represented medical malpractice victims. Call a malpractice lawyer to find out more about your case and what kind of damages you can recover for emotional distress and other non-economic damages. For a free consultation, contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162.

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