Car accidents are a leading cause of PTSD in Personal Injury Claims

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a recognized psychological injury that may result from traumatic events such as serious car accidents and often has a significant impact on the lives of accident victims suffering from this condition.

Victims of car accidents, slip, trip and falls and other types of personal injury events, typically suffer some type of physical injury, ranging from bruises or lacerations to more serious injuries such as spinal or brain injury. However, sometimes, along with the physical harm, accident victims also suffer psychological injuries that significantly affects their life as much as, or even more than their physical injuries.

In legal terms, a psychological injury is some type of mental harm, suffering or dysfunction that is a direct result of another person’s negligent actions. When a psychological condition results from a traumatic and/or tragic event that leads to a civil suit, it can be called a psychological injury. Psychological injuries may involve a number of conditions including chronic pain syndrome, traumatic brain injury (TBI), anxiety and depression. However, one of the most common in many personal injury claims is post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that may develop after someone has experienced a traumatic event or multiple events. The stimulus may involve actually experiencing the traumatic event or simply bearing witness to it. Individuals who suffer from PTSD often experience feelings of stress, panic, anxiety and may feel frightened even when there is no immediate danger.

Traumatic events that may cause PTSD include sexual and physical assault, car accidents, warfare and natural disasters. Serious car accidents are a leading cause of PTSD in Ontario, largely due to the high incidence of car accidents relative to other traumatic events that may initiate PTSD. Some studies suggest that almost 10 per cent of the victims of serious car accidents develop significant PTSD symptoms. There are several risk factors for victims of car accidents that increase the likelihood of developing PTSD, as follows.

  • the accident was particularly severe
  • accident victim was catastrophically or fatally injured
  • victim feels that their life was threatened in the accident
  • immediately experiences flashbacks of the event
  • the victim has had previous traumatic experiences
  • there is a history of mental illness

Traumatic events are not the only cause of PTSD. There are other factors that may contribute to or cause PTSD. They include:

  • Genetics – Some studies have shown that post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety and/or psychological disorder may be hereditary.
  • Brain Disorder – Many studies have linked PTSD and other psychological orders to a chemical imbalance in the brain. This refers to the way the brain regulates the chemicals and hormones the body releases in response to stress. The theory holds that if the brain is working fine, the individual deals with stress in a normal and healthy manner. If it is not working properly, then that stress may be heightened and the individual becomes more anxious and frightened.
  • Drugs and Substance Abuse – Some studies suggest that a chemical imbalance in the brain can sometimes contribute to PTSD. Therefore, it is unsurprising that drugs and substance abuse are also sometimes linked to PTSD, as these substances can often negatively affect the brain, as well as influence mood and behavior.

There are several signs and symptoms of PTSD that are fairly easy to detect. Some of the most discernible include regular flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares of the traumatic event, and constant anxiety and fear. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can largely be grouped into three main categories, as follows.

  • Re-experiencing Symptoms – This includes elements such as flashbacks, bad dreams and frightening thoughts.
  • Avoidance Symptoms – This includes actions such as staying away from places and events that induce anxiety or revive memories of the traumatic event, feeling emotionally numb, losing interest in daily activities, and having trouble remembering simple things.
  • Hyperarousal Symptoms – This involves feelings of being tense or “on edge”, easily startled, having difficulty sleeping and experiencing angry outbursts.

There are multiple ways to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, with the most common including therapy, medication and simple healthy activities, such as exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting involved in some type of community activity. Mayo Clinic provides information on post-traumatic stress disorder to sufferers and their families, including suggested actions for coping and support. There are also medical associations and support groups in many urban centres throughout Ontario that provide information and help for people struggling with PTSD. The Toronto Mental Health Association supports victims of PTSD through providing education and community support services.

With regard to personal injury claims, whether or not one can be compensated for post-traumatic stress disorder depends on the nature of the injury as well as a clear and specific medical diagnosis of the illness by a qualified medical professional. Although understanding and acceptance of PTSD and other psychological injuries has significantly improved in the past two decades, as with any medical condition, medical evidence is key in proving the severity of the condition and its impact on the accident victim’s life.

Well documented medical evidence is particularly important in cases of PTSD and other psychological injuries as these conditions are not physically visible, unlike broken bones, torn ligaments, spinal injuries and brain damages. Many of the symptoms of PTSD are emotional and behavioral. Because the symptoms of PTSD can be easily accessed in medical articles, defense teams in personal injury cases sometimes argue that the victim is faking or exaggerating their symptoms in order to sue for compensation.

Both in the interests of recovery and for the purpose of obtaining documented medical evidence to support your case, it is important that a victim seeks medical attention as quickly as possible if they recognize PTSD symptoms in themselves. Obtaining effective treatment can help reduce symptoms and allow the injured person to better cope in circumstances previously causing anxiety. It is also helpful to document what you are experiencing in the aftermath of a traumatic incident, both to aid in your treatment and also, to establish a pattern of consistency in your symptoms.

PTSD can develop from many personal injury events but the most common are:

  • Car Accidents – As previously indicated, car accidents are the most common source of accidental personal injury for Canadians and are, correspondingly, the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder. Careless actions such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, speeding and distracted driving, continue be responsible for most catastrophic and fatal injuries. For some individuals, being the victim of a car accident goes beyond their physical injuries; they may continue to feel panic, anxiety and fear of getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle or even in being a passenger. There are often other symptoms of PTSD associated with car accident victims, but the fear of travelling in a vehicle alone can have significant negative consequences on the injured person’s employment and social interactions.
  • Pedestrian and Cycling Accidents – Pedestrian-vehicle collisions and cyclist-vehicle collisions often lead to severe or catastrophic injury for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, and seriously injured accident victims may develop PTSD symptoms. These accidents can also result in psychological trauma and PTSD for drivers who may have inadvertently injured a pedestrian or cyclist. A case that recently received attention involves a woman whose car accidentally struck three teenage cyclists near Innisfil, Ontario, resulting in fatal injuries for one boy and severe injuries for another. The driver is suing the grieving families for damages, alleging that she has developed PTSD symptoms which have affected her ability to work.
  • Assault – Another frequent cause of PTSD is assault, including physical and/or sexual assault. While assault is typically prosecuted in the criminal courts, victims can sue their attacker in a civil court for the resulting emotional and psychological distress resulting from the attack.

Non-pecuniary damages are often awarded to PTSD victims. Non-pecuniary damages refers to losses that are not financial, such as pain and suffering, and a loss of enjoyment in life. However, victims of PTSD may also be eligible to receive pecuniary (economic) damages such as loss of income (when their condition has impacted their ability to work), medical expenses and other financial costs arising from their inability to function as they did prior to the accident.

Being the victim of a personal injury is always stressful. However, for PTSD sufferers, that stress far exceeds the temporary and more common stress levels that most accident victims experience. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can have a significant negative impact on the life on an injured person and their families.

In addition to seeking qualified medical help, injured persons suffering from PTSD are advised to contact a skilled and respected personal injury attorney who will provide strong legal representation. Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) are highly experienced car accident lawyers who can offer frank advice on the strength of your case and your best legal options for receiving favourable compensation. Call an ILO lawyer in your community to schedule a free no-obligation consultation if you or a family member is suffering from physical or psychological injuries resulting from an accident.


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