Sustaining a psychiatric injury as a result of an accident may give rise to a right to personal injury compensation. The legal principles for claiming compensation for a psychiatric injury as a personal injury, sit within the law of negligence. This means the right to seek damages arises from an injury which has resulted from the wrongful acts or omissions by another.

Personal injury refers to physical and psychological injury

Personal injury is not just confined to physical injury. Personal injury may also include psychiatric or psychological injury. A psychiatric injury may be secondary to a physical injury, arising for example from trauma, or from witnessing a traumatic event. Psychiatric injury may also be a pure psychiatric injury in the absence of any physical injury being suffered.

In Queensland, a psychological or psychiatric injury is included in the dictionary of the Personal Injuries Proceedings Act 2002, as a basis for pursuing compensable action.

For those sustaining a psychiatric injury as a result from events in the workplace, compensation may be sought under the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003. The requirement however, is that the employment is the major significant contributing factor to the injury.

What is a psychiatric injury?

There is often confusion about the meaning of psychiatric injury. To pursue a claim for psychiatric injury there must first be a psychological or psychiatric disorder. A diagnosis of psychological or psychiatric disorder is made by a medical professional experienced in that field. Diagnosis is made by reference to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently the 5th version, otherwise known as the DSM-5.

DSM-5: Standardization of Diagnoses

The DSM-5 is a classification of mental disorders with associated criteria designed to diagnose such disorders. It provides a standard reference for clinical practice in the mental health field, not just in Australia, but around the world.

Is stress a psychiatric injury?

In the workplace, mental stress and exhaustion from work pressure, or incidence of bullying and harassment, are not generally considered as grounds for pursuing a claim for psychiatric injury.

In the case of other accidents, mere stress, anger or other temporary emotions will also not be a successful basis for claiming a psychiatric injury for the purposes of seeking compensation.

Prolonged exposure to stressful situations on the other hand may contribute to the development of a serious psychiatric disorder and provide grounds for seeking damages for psychiatric injury.

To be a compensable injury, a psychiatric disorder would need to fall within the DSM-5 spectrum of Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders or Trauma/Stressor related Disorders.

Depressive Disorders

According to the DSM-5, the common feature of all of depressive disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic (related to the body) and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioural disturbances. The DSM-5 describes fear as the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat.

Anxiety is the anticipation of future threat. Anxiety is often with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidant behaviours. Anxiety disorders may also typified by panic attacks.

Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

The DSM-5 includes disorders in which exposure to a traumatic or stressful event is the basis for diagnosis. Typically, a diagnosis is made by the presence of anxiety or fear-based symptoms, anhedonic (lack of joy) and dysphonic symptoms (difficulty speaking) externalizing anger or aggressive symptoms, dissociative symptoms where the person exhibits a degree of disconnection or detachment, or some combination of the above. Depending on the particular symptoms, the diagnosis may fall under the banner of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or adjustment disorder.

Legal Perspective

A claim for damages for psychiatric injury is based on there being a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. Proving that events giving rise to that psychiatric disorder, as grounds for pursuing a claim for negligence, remains however, with lawyers.

KM Splatt & Associates Lawyers are experts in the legal process of pursuing claims for personal injuries, including psychiatric injury. We understand how difficult it can be to seek help, advice and the assistance required to pursue rights to which you may be entitled. Our aim is to listen to you and manage the process to be as stress-free as possible.

[1] Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) s 32 (1)(b).