In legal terms, “emotional distress” or “mental anguish”
has 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 damages we should compensate for in a personal injury case? This same
juror will recognize the pain that accompanies shattering a bone or tearing
a piece of flesh, but may stop short when it comes to another’s
mental agony, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. Why?
If a victim were only entitled to compensation for their medical bills
and lost wages we would not need a jury system. Any eighth grader could
do the math. America's jury system is about the
intangibles. In this country, we value the intangibles – that is what separates
us from a third world nation.
We have a civil justice system and a jury tasked with measuring the intangible
harms because only a jury can do it. The greatest calculator in the world
cannot feel. Machines do not have hopes, dreams, and families. No machine
could ever understand another’s despair or loss of enjoyment of
life. Machines cannot suffer. Only people do. So only people can actually value it.
This is the sacred province of the jury under the 7th Amendment. The 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 were not empty and hollow phrases.
They were fundamental guarantees enshrined in our system our justice.
Armies have been maintained and blood has been shed to ensure these inalienable
rights remain self-evident.
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. Our jury system recognizes emotional
scars not because of what has been lost - but because of what the victim
has been left to live with.
Mental anguish is like an open wound. Our emotional scars may calcify but
they are always part of us. We can all recognize the pain. The pain of
the parent who has lost a child. Of the gifted athlete who is left crippled
or amputated. The bright young student whose aspirations are cut short
by brain damage that impairs intelligence and the ability to function.
The veteran who honorably served his country for years only to return
with a permanent post-traumatic injury that no one quite understands.
A disfigured mother who fears she is ugly in the eyes of her husband,
her lover, her companion and confidant, her best friend of twenty years.
The child who did nothing wrong who must live the rest of her days from
the confines of a wheelchair. The proud and independent man who can no
longer support his family, who feels like a burden when he has to ask
for help. The older business man who loved to play golf on the weekends
who can only listen agonizingly as his friends distance themselves to
discuss their last round. The elderly woman, whose last meaningful years
are spent hobbling in mortal fear after attempting to cross the street;
the golden years she worked all her life to enjoy gone in a brief moment.
A devastating injury can be visited upon anyone. For a person who has been
unfairly robbed of the pleasures they once knew, there are constant reminders.
Pleasant memories of good and happy times are of no comfort. Happy memories
of the past only remind us of our past selves, making them especially
painful because we can never know them again.
Resentment towards life is only intensified when we know everything was
wholly preventable, caused by the carelessness of another, no fault of
our own doing, that we did nothing to deserve this. 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. For some, the bitterness
never goes away.
The fanciest calculator in the universe could never compute the value of
a dream deferred, of losing one’s health and mobility, of daily
constant pain, lost freedoms, and lost relationships. 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.
Members of the jury undertake this solemn duty of measuring God's glorious
gift to us in the form of a human body and the mobility it provides. Human
beings are unique as the only creatures on this planet with the capacity
to love, to sacrifice, to hope, to dream, and to exercise freewill. With
freewill comes the sacred responsibility of holding one another accountable
when we choose to be careless, reckless or irresponsible. Of all the blessing
bestowed upon the human mind, we are born with the innate ability to conceptualize
justice and to rectify the pain of injustice. But rather than an "eye
for an eye" making the whole world blind, America's civil justice
system seeks to wholly compensate victims of negligence for that which
they have been left to live with.
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. 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. By experience,
we all have come to know this is true. When we are sick, hurt, or in pain,
we are not in the best of spirits.
When we discuss mental anguish and emotional distress, we are talking of
the human spirit. That candle that lights the human spirit, that light
that makes the day a little bit brighter – when the fuel that fires
us from within is diminished – that is the most wrenching loss.
That is the gravity of the loss. The defendant’s carelessness may
not have extinguished the flame, but it has made the room darker. 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.
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 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."
Those who are responsible are often quick to assure us that “time
heals all wounds.” But those who give lip service to this hollow
condolence have ignored the loneliness of the pain and isolation. Only
those who caused this type of mental anguish can say it is a minor thing
of modest value. It may be that they have never experienced the torture
of knowing life will never be as full as it was before. Only those who
refuse to 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 we own.
These are the inalienable rights, the intangibles, endowed upon us by
our creator and the foundation upon which American justice was built.
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.