In legal terms, “emotional distress” or “mental anguish”
have four identifiable aspects for a jury to consider:
- grief and sorrow
- worry, anxiety, and fear
- loss of enjoyment of life
- loss of self-identify or an inability to obtain self-satisfaction
Many people, many jurors in fact, will ask rhetorically: Are these
really proper elements of damages in a personal injury case? Granted, this same
juror will recognize the pain that accompanies a shattering of the bone
or tearing of flesh. This same juror could award millions in property
damages if that is what the property was worth. But he or she may stop
short when it comes to another’s mental agony, suffering, and loss
of enjoyment of life. Why?
The law says, in no uncertain terms, that it is wrong for someone, through
their carelessness, to prematurely cast emotional trauma upon another
when it could have been prevented. Careless injustice can be visited upon
any of us. We recognize emotional and mental wounds as an element of damages
not for what was taken away - it's for what we have been left with.
Our Founding Fathers pronounced, in the
Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they are “endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.” These are not empty and hollow phrases.
They are fundamental guarantees enshrined in our system our justice. Armies
are maintained and blood has been shed in an effort to ensure these inalienable
rights remain self-evident.
This is the sacred province of the jury under the 7th Amendment. No machine
could ever fully understand another’s mental agony, suffering, and
loss of enjoyment of life. The greatest calculator in the world cannot
feel. Machines do not have hopes, dreams, and families. A machine cannot
suffer. Only people do. So only people can actually value it.
With every blessing bestowed upon the human mind, there is a countering
disadvantage. Because we can contemplate justice, we also recognize and
experience the pain of injustice. The satisfaction that comes from planning
and providing for our family also means we know the despair that exsits
in the face of tragedy. We are unique as the only creatures on the planet
with these capacities: to love, to sacrifice, to hope, to dream, the freewill
to reach our unique potential - and also with the understanding of grief,
sorrow, and the lonely silence of injustice.
You know how it would feel to watch your wife mow the lawn, carry all the
heavy grocery bags, and not be able to play with your own children. The
pride from accomplishment also means we can experience the devastation
of defeat, physical disability or disfigurement. The same well from which
laughter rises can be filled with tears. It is in these moments that we
come to realize the true glory of God's gift to us in the form of
a human body and the mobility it provides.
The human spirit is nothing less than the sum total of our mental and physical
health. All the great religious institutions around the world - Christianity,
Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism – they each share the belief
that our mind is inextricably interwoven with our body: mind, body, and
soul. Afflicting one inevitably impairs the others. By experience, we
have come to know this is true. The mind and the body are more than married,
for they can never be divorced and are always most intimately united;
when one suffers, so does the other.
So it is with the parent who has lost a child. The woman who used to pride
herself in making her own clothes is dejected when her neighbors gather
without her. The man who loved to play on the golf on the weekends finds
agony when his friends discuss their last round. The robust athlete who
was crippled and amputated. The bright and promising student whose aspirations
were cut short by brain damage that impairs intelligence and the ability
to function. A mother disabled and disfigured who fears she is ugly in
the eyes of her husband, her lover, her companion and confidant, her best
friend of twenty years. The young man who, because of a crippling injury
lives from the confines of a wheelchair. The proud and independent man
who can no longer support his family instead feels like a burden when
he has to ask for help. The elderly woman, whose last meaningful years
are spent in pain and mortal fear after attempting to cross the street;
the golden years she worked all her life to enjoy gone in a brief moment.
The veteran who honorably served his country for years only to return
with a permanent post-traumatic injury that no one quite understands.
Mental anguish is like an open wound. A person who has been unfairly robbed
of the pleasures they once knew is left with constant reminders. Our pain
is only intensified when the loss was wholly preventable and caused by
the carelessness of another. The visions of the past or our past self
are painful because we can never know them again. When the windows of
opportunity are closed to us, when we no longer have the mobility we once
knew, when we can no longer provide for our family, when life’s
simple pleasures are replaced by constant pain, it robs us of a sense
of dignity, confidence, and self-worth. We exist, but are tortured by
knowing we will never live as fully as before.
When one knows that if people had behaved differently that none of this
would have happened, there is a lingering kind of wrongfulness that simply
does not resolve itself with time. It does not make acceptance easy. It
will never go away. The pleasant memories of good and happy times are
of no comfort. The best calculator in the world could never understand
it. The fanciest machine in the universe will never compute the value
of a dream deferred, of losing one’s health and mobility, of daily
constant pain, lost freedoms, or lost relationships.
Broken spirits are more difficult to heal than broken bones. No one would
voluntarily subject themselves or their family to it. No one would trade
physical and mental torture for a defendant’s money. No, it is placed
upon them without invitation causing injuries that will stay longer than
desired, and that will alter life forever.
"Broken spirits are more difficult to heal than broken bones.
No one would voluntarily subject themselves or their family to it."
The candle that lights the human spirit, the light that makes a day a little
bit brighter – when the fuel that fires us from within is diminished
– that is the most wrenching loss. That is the reality of the loss.
The qualities of the person whose cup was filled and brimming with joy,
comfort, and satisfaction, no longer spill over into the cups of all those
around him. The defendant’s carelessness may not have extinguished
the flame, but it has made the room darker.
Those who are responsible will be quick to assure us that “time heals
all wounds.” But those who give lip service to this hollow condolence
have ignored the injustice of the pain and isolation. They may have never
experienced the torture of knowing life will never be as full as before.
Only those who caused mental anguish say it is a minor thing of modest
value. Only those who have caused this pain, or those who cannot understand
what it is like to walk in the moccasins of another, would suggest that
this type of mental torment is cheap.
Our lives are not cheap. Our health, our relationships, our family, and
our freedom to choose our own path are the most valuable things in life.
These are the inalienable rights endowed upon us by our creator and the
foundation upon which justice is measured.
When a man or woman comes before a jury of twelve with their pride ravaged,
their self-esteem maimed, they were not just physically hurt. They hurt
all over. They have been left with the loneliness of grief and injustice
cast upon them by a needless and senseless event. In our final appraisal,
if we say as a community that these things are not valuable, we will have
robbed ourselves of fundamental rights which should be self-evident, and
in so doing we will have rejected our God-given ability to appreciate
the true value within ourselves and in others.