Are You Entitled to Damages for Mental Anguish?


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Mental anguish is an element of non-economic damages usually sought in personal injury cases, medical malpractice and sometimes defamation cases. Generally, "mental anguish" translates to certain types of suffering that may include distress, anxiety, fright, depression, grief, or trauma. In many jurisdictions, plaintiffs may recover for mental anguish; however, some states set compensation caps on non-economic damages.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages cover certain type of injuries that are not out-of-pocket losses, including pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, humiliation, mental anguish, loss of consortium (companionship) as well as emotional distress. Because these damages are often difficult to calculate and, juries may overcompensate and non-economic damages can exceed actual economic damages. There is no standard formula to calculate these non-economic damages; therefore they vary on a case by case basis and are referred to as subjective damages because they differ according to a plaintiff's personal or subjective experience.

In most cases, to recover non-economic damages, the plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence (which means "more likely than not") that they suffer these injuries. If they cannot meet this burden of proof, they will not recover.

History of Damages for Mental Anguish

Damages for pain and suffering, including mental anguish, date back to Roman delicts, which is equivalent to today's tort system. The basic Roman delicts were iniuria (injury to person) and damnum iniuria datum (damage to property, including slaves). Under iniuria, the wronged party had to show that the tortfeasor acted willfully and intentionally to recover damages. The action was based on the plaintiff's "sense of outrage" and not on actual economic loss. Therefore the plaintiff could be compensated for "pain or distress of mind or body" in addition to any pecuniary damages. Whereas iniuria required a showing of ill will, damnum iniuria datum only required a showing of negligence. Eventually, Roman law evolved into only compensating for pain and suffering where the tort was intentional and only providing pecuniary damages in the sole case of negligence.

Under early English law compensation was afforded for slander and libel, and much later, shame, because shame "was keenly felt."

Compensation Caps on Non-Economic Damages

Several states have sought to control increasing non-economic awards by implementing compensation caps for these types of damages. Most of these compensation caps directly address medical malpractice issues where malpractice premiums rose to a level to become disincentives for physicians to practice. The tort reform of non-economic damages was intended to ameliorate this situation and protect doctors and health facilities from exorbitant damages. However, advocates against caps argue that caps unduly penalize those victims who may require a level of damages to compensate for lifelong losses that can never be regained.

California is one state where the compensation cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases has been codified. Under California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA), a patient's non-economic damages may not exceed $250,000.

Talk with an Attorney

If you suffer mental anguish arising from a case of personal injury or medical malpractice, you may recover non-economic damages. However, in some jurisdictions, you may only be allowed to recover a specified maximum. Also, you will have to prove your injuries by a preponderance of the evidence. Talk with an experienced attorney to discuss the details of your case.

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