The Use of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Civil Litigation

TASA ID: 4724

An ever-increasing number of plaintiffs are claiming post-traumatic stress disorder. Why such a sudden, marked rise in this form of litigation?

Descriptions of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were first recorded in the sixth century B.C. Though the symptoms associated with the illness have remained generally the same, the name of the condition itself has changed many times. In World War I the disorder was labeled “shell shock,” linking the condition to the close lines between battling armies and the continuous firing of munitions. In World War II, the condition came to be called “combat neurosis.” The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” entered the psychiatric nomenclature with the 1980 publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition.

The Vietnam conflict heightened the lay public’s awareness of this condition, through frequent articles in the press, movies, and books depicting the invisible wounds left by combat. Symptoms of PTSD can include rapid hyperarousal, which often leads to aggressive acts. Such behavioral changes, in turn, often lead to the loss of family, friends, and employment. Associated abuse of alcohol and/or drugs as self-medication is also frequent. Finally, in severe and usually untreated cases, suicide can occur.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have once again brought these combat-related symptoms to the forefront, and nowadays there is more awareness than ever of the many issues surrounding civilian PTSD.

According to studies conducted in civilian populations, root causes of PTSD often include significant injuries, medical malpractice disability, discrimination, and/or associated harassment. Of all traumatic events correlated with the onset of PTSD, rape is the most predictive.

Heightened awareness of PTSD is but one reason why lawsuits involving the disorder are increasing. According to studies, those who claim to have PTSD win markedly higher legal settlements than those who do not. Many individuals are incentivized to simply learn the symptoms and behaviors associated with PTSD, then act them out—especially when there will be a sympathetic group of jurors. Lawyers are increasingly aware of such fraudulent claims, and they now place greater emphasis on the full constellation of symptoms that characterize PTSD.

The newest criteria for diagnosis of PTSD include a severely traumatic event, as well as having flashbacks, dreams, and frequent sleep disturbance related to the event. Patients will also often withdraw from environmental stimuli that remind them of the traumatic event.

In all sufferers of PTSD, there is a marked decrease in functional level. The success of civil litigation involving PTSD often depends on the attitudes of jurors and judges toward this psychiatric disorder. Meanwhile, as the amounts awarded to sufferers of PTSD continue to rise, less-than-honest lawyers have taken to coaching clients in the art of passing as psychologically traumatized.

Disagreement between psychiatric expert witnesses on the defense and plaintiff sides is common. The witness’ credentials and experience in working with post-traumatic stress disorder—in both military and civilian populations—is often what seals the verdict.

Lawyers should always carry out thorough background checks to verify a particular psychiatrist’s professional experiences and background in litigation. Deserving clients will be most appreciative.
This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

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