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National PTSD Awareness Day – Part II

by Ron Bell | Jul 10, 2017 |

Proving the damage and establishing it’s value – legal aspects of a PTSD case

This is the second part of a two-article series on medical and legal aspects of PTSD cases. For the first part, click here.

One family’s loss, another man’s trauma

On June 8, 2004, Tommy Jarrett, a professional trucker from Ohio, got into his rig, entered a state highway and drove west. A few miles away, on the same road but headed in the opposite direction in a green Pontiac Grand Prix, were Michael Jones, his wife Amanda, and their two daughters, Hannah and Makayla. The day was initially warm and sunny, but as the two cars were getting nearer and nearer to each other, a sudden downpour began. Michael Jones lost control of his car and the green Pontiac drifted across the median to the other side of the highway. There it crashed into Tommy Jarrett’s truck coming from the other direction. Michael, Amanda, and Hannah survived – little Makayla didn’t. The family sustained an unimaginable loss and went through horrific emotional pain. Eventually, however, they began to recover. Tommy Jarrett, on the other hand, did not suffer any physical damage in the accident, but in the months that followed, he too had to deal with the emotional aftermath of the crash. Although the accident transpired through no fault of his own, he was plagued with feelings of guilt, intrusive thoughts and memories, and severe psychological pain that made him unable to work or even have normal interactions with his friends and family. After nine months, Jarrett decided to see a doctor who explained to him that he was experiencing a case of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the accident.

Anatomy of a PTSD personal injury claim

As demonstrated by the story above, and as explained in the previous article in the series, PTSD is a complex disorder that can affect anyone who has undergone a traumatic event, even if they did not suffer any obvious physical damage or emotional loss. This complexity is the reason why an injury-related damages claim will likely receive more than the usual scrutiny. Because the intricacies of any complicated medical condition, such as PTSD, are normally deemed to be “beyond the comprehension of an average juror”, an expert witness testimony will be called for if a PTSD personal injury claim finds its way to a court of law. An expert witness must have qualifications to diagnose PTSD and their role is to explain to the jury the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or in other words, what it is caused by and how it is diagnosed. The expert witness may then be presented with the testimony of a fact witness – for example, a person who recounts the traumatic event that the plaintiff experienced and the effect it had on the plaintiff’s life and behavior. The expert witness may be asked to opine if the evidence and testimony he has been presented with, suggest that the plaintiff suffers from PTSD. An expert witness may at the same time act in the capacity of a fact witness if, for example, they are the plaintiff’s therapist. It is to be expected, however, that the defendant will hire their own expert witness to present a competing testimony and refute the plaintiff’s claim. In many cases, the final verdict will be left for the jury, although this may depend on the circumstances of the case and state laws.

Proving that the plaintiff does, in fact, suffer from PTSD is only one part of the claim – the other is connected with determining the value of the compensation. Here, several factors come into play. The first is a question of the severity of the injury or, in other words, how extensive is the sustained psychological damage and how drastically has it affected the plaintiff’s life. The second factor concerns what is called special damages, that is, financial losses due to medical bills, wages that have been lost already or will be lost because of the future inability to work. The final value of the compensation claim will be set against the insurance policy level of the at fault party and may also include pain and suffering compensation as well as punitive damages (if the defendant displayed a reckless disregard for safety, or an intent to cause harm).

In the case mentioned at the beginning, it was established that the accident was the result of negligence on the part of Michael Jones, the father of the girl who died in the crash. Tommy Jarrett, the truck driver, decided to sue the Joneses for the trauma he experienced and demanded compensation for the financial loss he sustained due to his inability to work during the period of 9 months. He settled for $50,000, half of which was used to cover attorneys fees. Makayla Jones’ mother, Amanda Thornsberry, was greatly upset by the lawsuit at first, but after learning about the details of the emotional trauma Jones had suffered, she became more sympathetic. The damages were covered by her insurance. This story is a testimony of how complex PTSD cases can be, both from an emotional and a legal standpoint. It also shows, however, how vital it is to seek professional help for emotional scars to heal properly so that all the parties involved can return to living healthy and productive lives.

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