Psychological Injury, Claims For

Claims for Psychological Injury

Every trial attorney knows that a plaintiff in an impact related personal injury lawsuit is entitled to recover psychological or mental injury for pain and suffering as a result of a physical injury caused by a tort feasor. What is sometimes confusing is determining whether a client has an available cause of action in tort solely for psychological or mental injury. This article discusses Florida Law as it relates to the recovery of mental suffering damages without physical injuries. In a case where psychological damages alone are sought, a suit cannot be brought unless a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress may be properly alleged. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. McCarson, 467 So.2d 277 (Fla. 1985). In that case, the Florida Supreme Court first recognized the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress and adopted Section 46 of the Restatement of Torts. That Section states as follows: (1) One who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for such emotional distress, and if bodily harm to the other results from it, for such bodily harm. The elements for a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress have been defined as follows: (1) Deliberate or reckless infliction of mental suffering; (2) Outrageous conduct; (3) Conduct causing emotional distress; and (4) Severe distress suffered by the plaintiff.Dominguez v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc., 438 So.2d 58, 59 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983), approved 467 So.2d 281 (Fla. 1985). If these elements are proven, then the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages solely for emotional distress and psychological injury without physical harm. In proving that the defendant intended to inflict severe emotional distress, all that need be shown is that the defendant “… intended his specific behavior and knew, or should have known, that the psychological distress to the plaintiff would follow.” Id. at 59. The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress may also be defined as a claim for “outrageous conduct” causing severe emotional distress because it can either involve deliberate or reckless infliction of mental suffering. Williams v. City of Minneola, 575 So.2d 683, 690 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991). Where the psychological injury is based solely on simple negligence, a claim for mental damages alone cannot succeed. To recover psychological damages under a claim of negligence, Florida Law requires either proof of impact with a resulting physical manifestation of an injury, or a psychological injury which in turn results in a significant discernable physical injury resulting from the psychological trauma caused by the negligent act. Champion v. Gray, 478 So.2d 17, 20 (Fla. 1985); Brown v. Cadillac Motor Car Division, 468 So.2d 903 (Fla. 1985). In Brown, 468 So.2d at 904, the plaintiff brought a negligence case against Cadillac because his defective automobile struck and killed his mother while he was driving the car. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s case because the plaintiff only suffered psychological trauma without any demonstrative physical injury resulting therefrom. The Court held that before a cause of action for negligence may be allowed for mental injury, the psychological trauma had to result in a serious “physical injury” such as death, paralysis, muscular impairment, or similar objectively discernable physical impairment. Id. In Champion, 478 So.2d at 20, the personal representative of a mother’s estate brought an action for damages when the mother died after suffering great psychological shock and horror when she saw a car crash, run over, and kill her daughter. The Champion Court, carved out an exception to the impact rule by holding that when physical injuries result from mental damage caused to a foreseeable victim by a negligent act, no impact is necessary to allow the victim to recover damages. Id. The court confirmed that death was a serious physical manifestation of mental suffering. Id. Neither impact nor a physical manifestation of psychological trauma is necessary with the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. All that need be proven is that the defendant acted outrageously or intentionally. Thus, when the facts permit, mental suffering alone can be recovered from this cause of action. It appears that impact or a physical injury resulting from psychological damage needs to be proven in negligence so as to ensure that the plaintiff’s mental distress is genuine. This is apparently done to avoid the floodgates from over flowing with negligence cases brought based on psychological injuries alone. On the other hand, when a defendant acts recklessly or intentionally, the plaintiff’s claim for mental suffering should be allowed to proceed since it is foreseeable that the plaintiff would be psychologically adversely affected from those acts. Thus, persons that have suffered great mental anguish due to intentional or outrageous conduct are allowed to bring actions pursuant to Florida Law to recover solely for the mental injury. The number of cases meeting this tough standard of recovery are limited. It is a trial attorney’s responsibility to determine when such a claim exists. If after hearing the facts of a case, a reasonable person would exclaim “outrageous,” a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress should be pursued.