Can You Sue Someone for Emotional Distress After a Car Accident?

In addition to physical injuries, many people suffer emotional distress after car accidents. However, doctors cannot diagnose emotional distress with an X-ray or treat it with a surgical procedure. Nevertheless, most medical professionals understand that the psychological turmoil and stress a patient experiences after a car accident can have significant consequences for their health.

After a car accident caused by someone else’s bad behavior, you might wonder if you can sue the at-fault party for emotional distress. Understanding the meaning of emotional distress and its impact on your life after a traffic collision will help you know your legal options. Reach out to a car accident lawyer.

How Does the Law Define Emotional Distress?

Can You Sue Someone for Emotional Distress After a Car Accident?Emotional distress, also known as mental anguish or emotional harm, refers to the psychological suffering someone endures due to another person’s negligent or intentional actions. State laws generally recognize emotional distress as a legitimate form of injury for which you can seek compensation in a personal injury lawsuit.

Many states allow car accident victims to sue for emotional distress under two distinct categories: negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). NIED applies when the at-fault party’s negligence causes emotional distress, while IIED refers to cases where the other party deliberately inflicts emotional harm.

How Does Emotional Distress Manifest?

Emotional distress can manifest in a variety of ways, including the following:


Shock is an immediate and intense emotional response to a sudden, unexpected, or traumatic event, such as a car accident. When in shock, you could experience disbelief, confusion, or disorientation following the incident. Shock can sometimes manifest in physical symptoms like trembling, rapid breathing, or an increased heart rate.

The experience of shock is often overwhelming, and you might need time to process the event and come to terms with what happened before you recover. But even after the initial shock subsides, the emotional impact of the car accident could continue to affect your mental health and overall well-being in the long term.


Anxiety is excessive worry, nervousness, or unease about an actual or imagined situation. After a car accident, anxiety could arise due to concerns about your health, finances, or the chances of getting hurt in another accident. If your anxiety reaches disordered levels, you might feel apprehensive about getting back behind the wheel or traveling as a passenger in a vehicle.

Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and even panic attacks.


Depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities. A car accident could cause you to develop depression due to the pain and limitations of your physical injuries, the financial burden of medical expenses, or the disruption of your daily routines and relationships. Depression can interfere with a person’s ability to work, maintain relationships, and engage in self-care.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a car accident. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event.

If you have PTSD, you could experience extreme anxiety when exposed to reminders of the accident, such as the sound of a car horn or the sight of a similar vehicle. This heightened emotional response can significantly affect your daily life and ability to function.


Insomnia is difficulty falling or staying asleep, resulting in poor sleep quality and insufficient rest. After an accident, you could develop insomnia due to physical pain, anxiety, or PTSD-related symptoms. Insufficient sleep can also exacerbate existing mental health issues and lead to new problems such as daytime fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.


Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat or danger, and it’s natural. But when fears start to interfere with daily life, they sometimes develop into phobias— extreme, irrational fears that prevent people from functioning normally.

If you develop a phobia due to a traumatic car accident, you might experience intense fear when anticipating driving or being in a vehicle, even if the actual risk is minimal. This fear is often debilitating and can lead to avoidance behaviors, such as refusing to drive or ride in a car, which could prevent you from working or living independently.

Loss of Enjoyment of Life

Loss of enjoyment of life, also known as hedonic damages, refers to a decrease in your ability to find pleasure and satisfaction in activities you once enjoyed. After a car accident, you could experience this loss due to physical limitations, emotional distress, or a combination of both. The loss of enjoyment of life can manifest in various ways, such as reduced participation in social interactions or hobbies.

How Can Emotional Distress Affect My Life After a Car Accident?

Emotional distress can significantly affect your life after a car accident through:

  • Interference with daily activities – Anxiety, depression, or PTSD can make it challenging to complete day-to-day tasks, attend work or school, and maintain relationships with friends and family.
  • Financial strain – Emotional distress could require you to seek professional help, such as therapy or medication, the extra cost of which can add financial stress to your life.
  • Physical health complications – Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to physical health problems, such as headaches, digestive issues, and weakened immune systems.
  • Impacts on your career – Mental health challenges can make it difficult to focus, be productive, and perform well in your job. These consequences could lead to lost income or opportunities for advancement.

How Can I Seek Compensation for Emotional Distress After a Car Accident?

You can file a personal injury claim against the at-fault party or parties to seek compensation for emotional distress after a car accident. It is worth noting that you can usually only recover compensation for emotional distress if you have accompanying physical injuries.

In a car accident claim, you may need to:

  • Consult a car accident attorney A knowledgeable attorney can help you determine whether your case qualifies for compensation. If so, they can take over your case and guide you through the legal process.
  • Gather evidence – Collect all relevant information and documentation about your accident, including police reports, medical records, and witness statements.
  • File a claim – Your attorney can help you prepare and file a complaint against the at-fault party, in which you can demand compensation for your emotional distress.
  • Engage in negotiations – Both parties often attempt to settle before going to trial. Your attorney will negotiate to secure fair compensation for your emotional distress at this stage.
  • Proceed to trial – If you cannot reach a settlement, your case could go to trial, where a judge or jury can determine whether you should receive compensation for your emotional distress.

How Do I Prove Emotional Distress?

Proving emotional distress is challenging, as it involves subjective experiences that an insurance adjuster, judge, or jury cannot measure in any direct way.

To prove your claim, your attorney could present as evidence:

  • Medical records – Documentation from mental health professionals, such as therapists or psychiatrists, can help establish the existence and severity of your emotional distress.
  • Personal testimony – Your own account of the emotional distress you have experienced is often persuasive, especially when you cite specific examples of how it has affected your life. Keeping a journal to record the psychological effects of the accident over time is often instrumental in this regard.
  • Witness testimony – Statements from friends, family members, or colleagues who have observed the effects of your emotional distress can also provide valuable corroboration.
  • Expert testimony – Mental health experts can offer professional opinions on the severity and duration of your emotional distress and the likelihood of future complications.

How Much Can I Recover for Emotional Distress After a Car Accident?

The compensation you can recover for emotional distress after a car accident varies depending on several elements.

Factors that could influence the amount include:

  • Severity of emotional distress. More severe cases could warrant higher compensation.
  • Duration of emotional distress. Long-lasting or permanent emotional harm could lead to more significant financial awards.
  • Impact on your life. If your emotional distress has significantly disrupted your daily activities, career, relationships, or overall quality of life, you could qualify for more compensation.
  • Evidence of negligence or intent. Cases involving particularly egregious negligence or intentional harm could result in larger awards for emotional distress.

Many states have no fixed formula or calculation method for determining emotional distress damages (compensation). Each case is unique, and the compensation you receive will depend on the specific circumstances and the strength of your evidence.

Can I Receive Punitive Damages for Emotional Distress?

In some instances, yes, you can seek punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, aim to punish the wrongdoer for particularly egregious conduct and deter similar behavior in the future.

Judges or juries do not automatically award punitive damages in IIED cases. In fact, punitive damages awards are pretty rare. To qualify for punitive damages in an IIED case, most states require you to demonstrate that the defendant acted with extreme recklessness or malicious intent. The burden of proof for punitive damages is high, requiring clear and convincing evidence rather than the standard preponderance of the evidence most personal injury cases call for.

If your case might warrant punitive damages for IIED, consult with an experienced personal injury attorney who can evaluate your claim.

What Should I Avoid Doing When Filing a Claim for Emotional Distress?

When filing a claim for emotional distress, certain actions might jeopardize your case or reduce your chances of receiving fair compensation. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

Do Not Delay Seeking Medical Help

See a medical professional as soon as possible after the accident to document your emotional distress and obtain appropriate treatment. Delaying medical care can make it more challenging to establish a link between the accident and your emotional distress.

Avoid Providing Inconsistent Statements

Be consistent when describing your emotional distress and its impact on your life to medical professionals, insurance adjusters, and your attorney. The other side can use inconsistent statements against you, casting doubt on the severity of your emotional distress or your credibility. It’s a good idea to keep a journal and refer to it regularly so you don’t have to second-guess your information.

Do Not Minimize Your Symptoms

Be honest and forthcoming about the extent of your emotional distress. Downplaying your symptoms could lead to the undervaluation of your claim.

Refrain from Discussing Your Case on Social Media

Sharing information about the accident or your emotional distress claim on social media could also harm your case. Insurance companies and opposing counsel could use your online statements or activity to challenge your claim or question the severity of the accident’s psychological effects.

Do Not Negotiate with Insurance Companies Alone

An insurance adjuster’s job is to save the insurance company money. Their goal is usually to settle your claim quickly and for far less than you deserve. Allowing a personal injury attorney to negotiate with insurance companies on your behalf is the best way to protect your rights and avoid losing money to preventable errors.

How Can a Personal Injury Attorney Help My Claim?

A personal injury attorney can significantly improve your chances of successfully claiming compensation for emotional distress after a car accident.

An experienced attorney can:

  • Determine if your case qualifies for compensation and advise you on how to move forward
  • Assist you in collecting and organizing the necessary evidence to support your claim
  • Guide you through each step of the legal process, ensuring that you meet all deadlines and requirements along the way
  • Represent your interests in negotiations with insurance companies or opposing parties, advocating for fair compensation on your behalf
  • Present your case in court if it goes to trial

The sooner you get in touch with an attorney, the more they can do on your behalf. Contact a personal injury lawyer today to start protecting your rights and pursuing the money you deserve.

Car Accident
by Mickey Fine Law
Last updated on - Originally published on