Attorney Ben Schwartz and Attorney Rob Collins answer Frequently Asked Questions about emotional injuries from an accident and the anguish that often accompanies personal injuries and car accidents.
BS: Hi, I’m Attorney Ben Schwartz.
Attorney Rob Collins is here with me, and he’s going to answer frequently asked questions about personal injury claims. We hear this question a lot in the context of car accident cases and slip-and-fall cases. “I was injured in an accident and I’m having some emotional problems from the accident. Is there anything that can be done about that?”
In car accident cases, the person may be afraid to get back in the car and drive. In a dog bite case, the person may have been bitten by a vicious dog and is afraid to go out in the neighborhood for a walk. Rob, what are your thoughts on this?
RC: It’s very common for medical doctors to ask about personal injury cases. A lot of the time, they forget to ask their patients how they feel. Anxiety and depression, especially is there are income problems or large medical bills after an accident, are very common. Injuries that are claimed under your case are not only physical; they also include the emotional and the mental aspects of your injuries.
In car accident cases, I’ve seen clients who have nightmares, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance. You’re afraid that every car that comes up behind yours will rear-end you because you were rear-ended at a red light. I had one client who was in an accident at a red light almost right in front of her house. For several months afterward, she could not go through that intersection. She would drive all the way back around through the neighborhood. It was an extra mile to and from her house every time she left home just because she couldn’t bring herself to drive through that same intersection.
BS: Rob, when I was a young attorney, I had a car accident case. A lady was injured in the accident. Her physical injuries were not terrible, but the accident, from her viewpoint, was horrific because she saw the driver of the car. A car came out through an intersection, ran through it and went right in front of her. She saw the lady that was in the car and she believed she killed that lady in another car. She didn’t kill her; the lady turned out to be fine. For a few moments, my client believed that she had killed another human being. The night after the car accident, she started feeling like she was having chest pain. She couldn’t breathe. She thought she was having a heart attack and was taken to the ER. She was having a panic attack as a result of what she saw in the accident. She definitely was experiencing emotional injuries from the accident. How frequently do you see this in your personal injury practice?
RC: I would say that maybe 25% of my clients need treatment. The number of people who are suffering is much higher. A lot of people can work their way through this type of experience without professional help. A fair number benefit from professional help, especially because there’s not a lot of mental health care providers who specialize in PTSD type cases. Even if a therapist accepts those types of cases, they may not accept the PIP insurance from the auto accident. The therapist may not be willing to provide a report and testify if the case goes to trial. We only have a handful of providers available to help our clients. It’s not really fair to the client because he or she has the right to be put back to where they were before that accident happened. Medical doctors, physical therapists, and surgeons do a great job of physically putting clients back to where they were before the accident.
If you just can’t drive or you can’t get a good night’s sleep because of nightmares, then the client or patient needs to get mental health care to get him back to where he was.
BS: Where is the dividing line in your opinion? At what point do you say to the client, “I think you need to get counseling. Emotionally, you don’t seem to be getting better.” Where’s the dividing line between people that you see? Do you give him a couple of weeks? Let him get back in the car and drive? Do you think that maybe he’ll get back on the horse on his own?
RC: I’m not going to say, “I won’t take your case unless you go see a therapist.” It’s always up to the client and what the client is most comfortable doing. I make that recommendation once their regular daily activities are interrupted. If my client can’t sleep and is tired all day, then I would recommend it. It’s dangerous to drive or use equipment like that. And it’s just bad for your overall health. If you’re driving a mile or two out of your way every time you leave home, I would say that’s interfering with your daily life. If you can do everything you normally did before the accident, you still might feel a little stressed out. But if you need to change your life because of your emotions, then it’s time, in my opinion, to go see somebody and get professional help to get you back to a point where you are functioning as you were before the accident.
BS: It’s a question of functional impairment. If you’re having functional impairment, you need to ask for help. If you’re not, then maybe it’s something that will go away on its own. Maybe it’s something that you can self-treat. Maybe you’ve had an accident and you’re having emotional problems or you’re losing sleep. Maybe you’re feeling irritable. The facts of the accident keep playing through their head. You find that you avoid the accident scene or you are avoiding people. Maybe things remind you of the accident. How long do you think someone should go before they take action to seek therapy?
RC: Honestly, in my opinion, this is just like any other health issue. If it’s interfering with your life, go get treatment. If you have a sprained muscle, you go to the doctor. Your muscle can be repaired in a couple of weeks. If you’re experiencing emotional injuries, you can go see a therapist and be back to where you were within a couple of weeks. Like any other injury, the longer you let it nag and go on, it can take longer to heal. The sooner you get treatment, the more likely you are to heal quickly. Therapists are there to listen, but they also provide coping skills. They can give you exercises to help you work through your difficulties.
I always tell my clients, “If you’re doing physical therapy, it should be like going to the gym. You should hurt afterward. If you’re not hurting afterward, then you’re not working hard enough.” It’s the same thing with this type of therapy. You get exercise, and you have to work at it. If you work at it, then you can get mentally healthy much quicker.
BS: Twenty or thirty years ago, there was really a stigma about therapy or going to a professional counselor, do you think that (in our society now) there’s a stigma against people that seek mental health treatment or emotional health counseling?
RC: Not nearly to the same degree. I think people are still worried about the stigma, but I don’t think the actual stigma exists like it used to. We have learned that this is just another aspect of healthcare. We don’t stigmatize somebody for having cancer or colitis. We also don’t stigmatize people today for mental health issues.
The younger generation has grown up understanding this. Maybe it is taking some of the older folks a little bit longer, but I think the fear of the stigma is much stronger than the actual stigma today.
BS: Okay, thanks very much to Attorney Rob Collins. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about emotional injuries. If you have questions about personal injury claims or emotional injuries that come from personal injury, car accident, slip-and-fall, dog bite accidents, please feel free to contact us.