• North State Auto Law

Damages for Emotional Distress After an Car Accident




Negligent infliction of emotional distress is a valid cause of action whether you suffered a physical injury or not and even when the emotional distress was caused by witnessing someone else’s suffering.


In this article, we will discuss:

  • North Carolina, as an example, for the law on emotional distress/mental anguish,

  • The elements of negligent infliction of emotional distress in NC,

  • How to prove your claim and recover damages, and

  • The signs and symptoms of emotional distress.


What is the Law on Emotional Distress/Mental Anguish?


In general, you can recover damages after a car accident for negligent infliction of emotional distress when the crash causes severe emotional distress/mental anguish, whether the distress is caused by your injuries or injuries that you witnessed happening to another person.


Emotional Distress/Mental Anguish Law


Johnson v. Ruark Obstetrics and Gynecology Assocs. is a 1990 case from the NC Supreme Court that explains NC law on emotional distress/ mental anguish in detail, reviewing NC cases decided in the last century and concluding that there are three elements to a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress in NC:

  1. The defendant was negligent – for example, the defendant violated a traffic law and caused a car accident,

  2. It was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct would cause severe emotional distress/ mental anguish, and

  3. The defendant’s conduct did in fact cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress.

Is a “Physical Impact” Required?


Some states have a “physical impact” requirement before a plaintiff can recover damages for emotional distress, and NC even has some older cases that suggest a physical impact is required.


Johnson v. Ruark expressly overruled any prior cases requiring a physical impact, however, and made it clear that “neither a physical impact, a physical injury, nor a subsequent physical manifestation of emotional distress is an element of the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress”.


For example, if someone is trapped for a time in a burning vehicle after an accident, although they do not suffer a physical injury, they might be entitled to recover damages for emotional distress if they can demonstrate that 1) they suffered severe emotional distress, 2) it was foreseeable, and 3) it was proximately caused by the defendant’s negligence.


“Temporary Fright, Disappointment, or Regret” vs. Emotional Distress/Mental Anguish


The emotional distress suffered must be “severe.” This could mean any emotional or mental disorder that results from the car accident and that is diagnosed by a professional, including:

  • Neurosis,

  • Psychosis,

  • Chronic depression,

  • Phobia, or

  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

As the NC Supreme Court says in Ruark, “mere temporary fright, disappointment or regret will not suffice.”


Emotional Distress Caused by Concern for Another Person


Many states also allow claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress that result from concern for another person, if they “can prove that he or she has suffered such severe emotional distress as a proximate and foreseeable result of the defendant's negligence.”


In our example above, a person who was trapped in a burning vehicle may be entitled to recover damages for emotional distress even if they did not suffer a physical injury themselves. The same would be true if you are in a car accident and, although you were not injured yourself, you witness injuries to a family member who is in the car with you.



Recovering Damages for Emotional Distress


In many states to prove a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, you will most likely need to demonstrate that you have experienced prolonged emotional or mental health issues that have been diagnosed and treated by an appropriate mental health professional.


You may need to produce evidence of your mental injury like medical bills, medical records, and possibly testimony from your treating physician or mental health professional.


Although most people suffer some shock and horror when they are involved in a vehicle crash, this is probably not enough to support a claim for emotional distress unless the emotional distress is severe, prolonged, and diagnosed by a medical professional.


Pre-Existing Mental Health Issues or Mental Injuries


Although the defendant in your car accident case is not responsible for your pre-existing mental health issues or mental injuries, they might be responsible for damages when a pre-existing condition is aggravated by the car accident.


Trained medical professionals, therapists, or psychiatrists will need to give an opinion about the effect of the car accident on your mental condition, and you will need to prove that the defendant’s negligence proximately caused the aggravation of your condition.


Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Distress


Emotional distress, mental anguish, or emotional suffering can be caused by a variety of emotional or mental health disorders and can be triggered by the trauma of a car accident.


Although depression and anxiety are the most common symptoms, the signs of emotional distress can vary based on each individual’s situation and diagnosis. These symptoms might include:

  • Chronic depression,

  • Anxiety,

  • Feelings of helplessness,

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed,

  • Feelings of guilt,

  • Difficulty in concentrating or performing daily tasks,

  • Sleep disturbances,

  • Changes in appetite,

  • Changes in substance use or abuse like drugs or alcohol,

  • Isolation from friends or activities,

  • Angry outbursts and irritability,

  • Feelings of loneliness, or

  • Physical manifestations like unexplained pain.

If you are experiencing signs of emotional distress after a car accident, you should immediately seek professional help and perhaps consult an attorney.


Questions About Law on Emotional Distress/ Mental Anguish?


If you or someone you know is suffering from emotional distress caused by an auto accident, you may have a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.


Do not lose hope! Call Northstate Auto Law now at 336-990-0572 or send us a message through our website to talk to an attorney who cares.




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