After a motor vehicle accident, our immediate focus tends to be on treating any physical injuries. But accidents are also a serious form of trauma, one that frequently leaves victims with long-standing mental injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When post-accident PTSD is the result of a third party’s negligence, a victim may seek damages in court for the resulting mental trauma.
Keep in mind, however, that a B.C. judge will not simply take a claim for mental health injuries at face value. Like any other type of injury, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. For instance, if you claim that PTSD affects your ability to earn a living, the court will need to see hard proof of this. Merely telling the judge you are afraid of a potential flashback to the accident is not sufficient.
A recent decision by the B.C. Supreme Court, Lutzke v. Beier, offers a helpful illustration of this point. This personal injury lawsuit was the result of a December 2014 collision between a motor vehicle and a train. The defendant’s negligence caused the accident by stopping at a railroad crossing just as the train, operated by the plaintiff, passed through.
The plaintiff initially thought the collision killed the driver and either killed or seriously injured a minor child who was also in the car. Fortunately, that was not what happened. The negligent driver was the only occupant of her vehicle, and she was not killed.
There was no question the defendant’s negligence caused the accident. The principal dispute at trial was the amount of the damages owed to the plaintiff. The plaintiff developed PTSD as a result of the accident. While he eventually returned to his job as a train engineer, he claimed that “he continues to suffer from increased anxiety and remains vulnerable to a relapse of PTSD, particularly if he experiences another traumatic event.”
In more precise economic terms, the plaintiff said the accident had left him unable to “continue working for long enough to allow him to qualify for a full pension.” He therefore asked the Court for compensation for his “anticipated loss of income and associated pension benefits.” He further asked for damages to account for the “real and substantial possibility” of a relapse in his post-accident PTSD.
Not surprisingly, the defendant rejected these claims. While she acknowledged the plaintiff’s post-accident PTSD, she maintained that he had “essentially recovered” and his “lingering symptoms” are “minor” and do not substantially affect his ability to continue working until the normal retirement date. Furthermore, any potential relapse of the plaintiff’s PTSD is “speculative.”
Justice Warren B. Milman of Vancouver Supreme Court tried the case in July of this year. On August 23, 2018, he issued his judgment. The judge addressed two main issues – the plaintiff’s claim for damages arising from his alleged “future loss of earning capacity” and his “cost of future care.”
The earning capacity issue revolved around the plaintiff’s planned retirement date. Prior to the accident, the plaintiff said he intended to work until March 2024. At that time he would have 35 years service to his employer and would therefore receive full pension benefits.
But as a result of his PTSD and related post-collision anxiety, the plaintiff testified at trial that he could not “survive” until 2024. He therefore anticipated retiring at the earliest available time when he can receive benefits, which will be March 2021, three years short of his full-pension retirement date.
The plaintiff asked for $100,000 to compensate him for this projected loss in future earnings. But Justice Milman denied the claim in its entirety. He agreed with the defendant that there was not a “real and substantial possibility” that the plaintiff would be forced into early retirement based on the lingering psychological trauma of the accident. The judge pointed to the fact the plaintiff is currently capable of doing his job without limitations.
While it was possible the plaintiff could suffer a relapse of post-accident PTSD, the medical evidence presented at trial suggested this was only a real possibility if the plaintiff “were to be traumatized again,” i.e. involved in another accident. Such a possibility was purely “speculative” at this point, as the defence argued, and the judge noted there was “no evidence before me as to the statistical frequency of such occurrences.”
Indeed, the plaintiff himself testified the accident with the defendant was the only serious incident that occurred during his prior 30 years of service as a train engineer. Furthermore, a “relapse is less likely in [the plaintiff’s] case due to the coping mechanisms that he has learned and put to good use in the subsequent near misses he has experienced.”
For similar reasons, the judge also denied the plaintiff’s request for $20,000 in damages for the cost of future care that might be required if he suffers a PTSD relapse. The plaintiff argued such damages would be necessary to pay for his “additional counseling and medication.” But once again, Justice Milman sided with the defendant, who maintained any such costs are wholly speculative and not justified according to the available medical evidence.
The lesson from this case is not that PTSD is not a real or serious mental health condition, or that accident victims cannot receive compensation for such injuries. But personal injury claims are highly fact-specific. Judges want to see hard proof rather than speculation, which is why it is essential you gather as much evidence as possible to support your claim for damages before heading into court.
At Preszler Law Firm, our experienced Vancouver car accident lawyers can assist you with all stages of building and winning your personal injury case. If you have been injured in any type of accident, call us today to schedule a free initial consultation with one of our lawyers. We do not charge any upfront fees, and we do not get paid unless you win.