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One of the most overly used and abused words that you will hear associated with personal injury lawsuits is “emotional distress”. Thanks, in a large part, to uninformed media and to an even greater extent, to the masses of fictional courtroom dramas that throw this term around like rice at a wedding, people have come to believe that anytime they are involved in an accident and get upset or have their feelings hurt, they are entitled to receive financial damages for emotional distress.

While, as a personal injury attorney, I wish it were that simple to recover emotional damages, the truth is, it isn’t. Merely getting upset is not considered grounds enough to justify an emotional distress claim. There are very specific rules that govern when damages can be awarded for emotional distress and they are much narrower than most people realize.

When can you sue for emotional distress?

Under Florida law, you can only claim emotional damages if you suffer a long-term psychological impairment that is severe enough to hinder you from living a normal life or that interferes with your ability to earn a living.

As an example, say you are a sprinter and get involved in a motorcycle accident severely damaging your leg and ending your ability to run races. It would be expected for this to cause a great deal of emotional turmoil, but that alone doesn’t justify a financial settlement for emotional distress.

Now, if the accident causes you to develop severe long-term depression to the point that you can no longer interact with your family and friends or function in normal society, then a case can be made for emotional distress.

Another example would be an auto mechanic or factory worker who is involved in an accident and as a result, develops phonophobia (fear of loud noises). Factories and mechanic’s shops are places that are normally dominated by loud noises. Because these people would no longer be able to work, in their chosen professions, due to this mental condition, they should be able to collect damages for emotional distress.

When can’t you sue for emotional distress?

The key points here are that the mental damage has to be long term and life altering. If you are involved in an accident a certain amount of short-term emotional trauma is to be expected. Fear, anger, and anxiety are all common reactions in the aftermath of an accident, but in the majority of cases these feelings pass within a few minutes to a few days. These reactions do not qualify you to receive financial compensation on the basis of your mental state. They are not long term and while not pleasant to endure, they do not negatively impact your overall quality of life.

Exactly where the line can be drawn as to what qualifies as long term and what doesn’t is, of course, a point that is often open for debate and just one of the reasons you should always seek the advice of a qualified personal injury attorney if you are involved in an accident.

It is only by reviewing the nature of your individual case and having personal experience with the court that your case will come before that a decision can be made on the value of filling an emotional distress claim.