nick colling - MSM&C

Attorney at Mueller, Schmidt, Mulholland & Cooling

Practice Areas: Insurance Bad Faith, Workers’ Compensation, Personal Injury

The State of Iowa has agreed to pay nearly $1.1 million in a case concerning John Vetter, a former state employee. Vetter injured his back in 2011 and was subsequently given permanent work restrictions by his physician. The state placed Vetter on involuntary medical leave and eventually terminated his employment in 2013, stating he could no longer fulfill his job responsibilities. Vetter took legal action against the state, arguing it didn’t make the “reasonable accommodations” required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. A jury awarded him $600,000 for back pay and emotional distress in 2015. The Iowa Appeal Board has now consented to pay $1,053,913 to cover the judgment and associated costs.

Emotional distress often remains overlooked in discussions surrounding personal injury. While physical harm receives immediate attention, emotional trauma lingers in the background but can be just as debilitating. Emotional distress refers to psychological effects like anxiety, depression, or extreme fear arising from an injury or accident. Unlike a broken bone, it’s not visible in an X-ray, making it harder to quantify. Nevertheless, courts are increasingly recognizing its importance in calculating fair compensation in personal injury cases. 

Types of Emotional Distress: Acute Stress vs. Chronic Anxiety

Emotional distress manifests in various forms, primarily categorized as acute stress and chronic anxiety. Acute stress is immediate and often results from the shock or fear experienced during or right after an unfortunate event. Symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, confusion, and even disorientation. This type of stress is generally short-lived, subsiding as the individual comes to terms with what has happened.

Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is long-lasting and can endure for months or even years after the incident. Persistent worry, sleepless nights, and ongoing fear are common signs of chronic anxiety. Unlike acute stress, chronic anxiety often requires long-term psychological support and sometimes medication.

Differentiating between acute stress and chronic anxiety is vital for legal proceedings because the two can have diverging implications for compensation calculations. Courts may consider the duration and severity of emotional suffering, making it beneficial for plaintiffs to understand the specific nature of their distress.

Legal Framework: How Courts Evaluate Emotional Distress Claims

In legal circles, emotional distress claims follow a set of guidelines courts use for evaluation. Generally, two categories exist: “negligent infliction of emotional distress” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” For a claim to be successful under negligent infliction, a direct link between the defendant’s negligence and the emotional trauma experienced must be established. Intentional infliction, conversely, requires proof the defendant deliberately acted in a way to cause emotional harm.

Courts often look for “reasonable” signs of emotional distress supported by evidence. Medical records, psychiatric evaluations, and expert testimonies serve as valuable proof. Additionally, some jurisdictions may require a “physical injury” threshold to consider emotional distress claims.

Another critical element is “foreseeability.” Was it foreseeable the defendant’s actions would cause emotional trauma? A positive answer can significantly strengthen a case. Furthermore, the severity, duration, and the medical treatment needed for emotional distress could influence the amount of compensation awarded.

Documenting Emotional Suffering

Documenting emotional suffering for a personal injury case requires meticulous attention to detail. A well-documented case can serve as robust evidence, elevating chances of a successful outcome. Medical records stand as some of the most convincing forms of proof. Routine visits to healthcare providers for psychological treatment can demonstrate the ongoing nature of the emotional distress experienced.

Journal entries can also be helpful. A diary chronicling daily emotions, triggers, or events can offer a real-time glimpse into the mental state of the individual suffering. Though personal and subjective, such documentation can be incredibly impactful when corroborated by professional medical opinions.

Witness statements provide another layer of evidence. Friends, family, and co-workers who can vouch for the emotional toll the incident took on an individual may offer compelling supplementary evidence. Descriptions of observed behavioral changes or emotional decline can add weight to the claims.

Lastly, photos or videos showing the immediate emotional aftermath of an incident can also serve as evidence. In a world increasingly dependent on digital media, these can be powerful tools in supporting a case.

Calculating Compensation: Methods for Valuing Emotional Harm

Calculating compensation for emotional harm in a personal injury case is a nuanced process, as there’s no standardized measure for emotional distress like there is for medical bills or property damage. However, several methods are commonly employed to arrive at a fair valuation. One approach is the “multiplier method,” where the tangible damages—such as medical bills and lost wages—are multiplied by a certain factor to account for emotional harm. The multiplier can vary depending on the severity and duration of the emotional distress suffered.

Another method involves the “per diem” approach, where a daily rate is established for the emotional suffering endured. For example, a value could be assigned to each day the individual has suffered from emotional distress, calculated from the date of the incident until reaching maximum medical improvement.

Sometimes, jurisdictions have a “damages cap,” which sets an upper limit on the amount which can be awarded for emotional distress. Knowledge of any such legal constraints is important for setting realistic expectations for compensation.

It’s also common for courts to consider precedents or examine similar cases to determine an appropriate compensation amount for emotional distress. By looking at awards granted in similar circumstances, a range for potential compensation can be established.

Legal Procedures: Steps to Filing an Emotional Distress Claim

Personal Injury

Initiating an emotional distress claim in a personal injury case involves several legal procedures, each with its own set of requirements and timelines. Initially, a formal complaint detailing the nature of the emotional distress and the incidents leading to it must be drafted. This document, often known as a “petition” or “complaint,” is filed with the appropriate court to set the legal process in motion.

Following the filing, the “discovery” phase begins. Both parties exchange evidence, which can include medical records, expert reports, and witness statements. Discovery is crucial for gathering the information needed to substantiate an emotional distress claim.

Next comes the pre-trial motions, where both sides may request the court to make certain rulings possibly shape the course of the case. These can include motions to dismiss the case, or motions for summary judgment, which request the court to rule in favor of one party based on the evidence presented.

Should the case proceed, the next step is generally a trial. Here, both parties present their arguments and evidence to a judge or jury. Expert testimonies, medical records, and other forms of evidence are presented to substantiate the claim for emotional distress.

Before the court can determine the compensation, the plaintiff’s legal team must navigate the intricacies of personal injury law. This includes understanding the nuances of specific incidents and the unique limitations on injury claims in Iowa. It is crucial to categorize the emotional distress within the broader spectrum of personal injury to articulate how the incident has breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff. Furthermore, if the claim has been previously denied in court, the plaintiff’s representation must present a compelling argument for reconsideration, often necessitating a detailed exposition of the accident and subsequent medical bills. Only with a thorough presentation of these elements can the plaintiff hope to secure a favorable ruling.

Finally, if the ruling is in favor of the plaintiff, the court will determine the amount of compensation. This involves a complex calculation taking into account various factors such as the severity of the emotional distress, its impact on quality of life, and any medical expenses incurred for treatment.

If you are suffering from emotional distress from an injury, contact or call us at 515-444-4000 as soon as possible for a free consultation.

Providing Unmatched EXPERIENCE On Your Case When you find yourself in a situation where you’ve been treated unfairly or you’re in the middle of a legal disagreement, it can be difficult to know what your rights are and how to proceed.

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