Free Consultation · Call 24/7

Can You Sue a Hospital for Emotional Distress?

If emotional distress arises due to medical malpractice, a hospital could potentially bear legal responsibility for it. Lawsuits strictly for the infliction of emotional distress in Illinois are only allowed in limited circumstances when you experience physical danger while witnessing another person’s death or serious injury.  

Yes, you can sue a hospital for emotional distress if it is connected to a physical injury resulting from a separate cause of action, such as medical malpractice. Most medical errors that cause emotional distress also involve severe physical injuries. However, it is possible for medical malpractice to cause psychological trauma in the absence of a physical injury.  

What Is Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress in a medical malpractice case is psychological trauma that damages your daily life. It is also known as mental anguish. Symptoms of mental anguish may include the following: 

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Severe anxiety 
  • Deep depression 
  • An inability to function at work 
  • Changes in your ability to maintain relationships 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Grief 
  • The development of phobias 
  • Humiliation 
  • A loss of your financial or social status 

Emotional distress may stem from various medical injuries, including chronic pain, new disabilities, wrongful death, and birth injuries.  

When Can You Include Emotional Distress in a Medical Malpractice Claim Against a Hospital?

In a medical malpractice case, the hospital may be liable for the actions of doctors, nurses, or other personnel who commit medical errors that lead to psychological injury. Illinois law allows damages to be awarded for emotional distress in the following circumstances: 

  • When you were in the zone of danger where someone else was injured 
  • When you also experienced a physical injury as a result of the wrongdoing 
  • When the act or omission that caused the emotional distress occurred in connection with another cause of action 

Physical Injuries 

The Illinois courts have long recognized that emotional distress may stem from physical injuries caused by medical malpractice. In these cases, damages for emotional injuries are awarded in addition to physical pain and suffering. 

The Zone of Danger 

The zone of danger is the immediate physical area surrounding someone experiencing a severe physical injury, in which a bystander also faces a risk of being severely injured. 

In the 1983 case Rickey v. Chicago Transit Authority, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that bystanders who witness a traumatic injury or death may sue for emotional distress in the absence of a physical injury if they were in the zone of danger. This was the first time individuals in Illinois were allowed to recover damages for emotional distress in the absence of a physical injury.  

Separate Causes of Action 

In response to the Rickey case, the lower courts in Illinois routinely ruled against individuals pursuing damages for emotional distress who had not also been physically injured. This made it difficult for victims of medical malpractice to get justice for the psychological impacts of their injuries. 

This changed in 2011 in Clark v. Children’s Memorial Hosp., when the Illinois Supreme Court established that a plaintiff could pursue damages for emotional distress as an element of damages for another wrongful act or omission.  

This ruling was issued in a medical malpractice case involving the wrongful birth of a child born with permanent disabilities after a doctor failed to provide the mother with accurate genetic testing results. 

This case was appealed to the state supreme court after the lower courts denied emotional damages because the mother was not in any zone of danger when the malpractice occurred. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling on the following basis: 

“The zone-of-danger rule applies only in cases where the plaintiff’s theory of liability is the negligent infliction of emotional distress. It does not apply where, as in a wrongful-birth case, a tort has already been committed against the plaintiffs, and they assert emotional distress as an element of damages for that tort.” 

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed its decision in another case in 2017, Cochran v. SECURITAS SEC SERVICES USA, INC., in which a corpse was delivered to the wrong family and cremated before an autopsy could be performed. Although there was no physical injury, the emotional distress occurred due to the wrongful act of denying a family the right to the decedent’s remains. 

Hospital doctor

What Types of Hospital Medical Malpractice Claims Cause Emotional Distress?

Hospitals may be liable for medical malpractice committed on their premises by doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, therapists, or other employees or personnel with hospital privileges. In some cases, medical malpractice may result from a systemic problem within the hospital rather than the wrongdoing of one health care provider. Examples of systemic hospital problems include the following: 

  • Poor communication between facilities or departments 
  • Out-of-date medical records management. 
  • Out-of-date equipment 
  • Inadequate staffing 
  • Inadequate infection control 
  • Inadequate admissions procedures 
  • Insufficient safety policies and procedures 

Medical malpractice resulting in emotional distress at hospitals may stem from the medical errors discussed below. 

Diagnostic Errors 

Diagnostic errors generally fall into the following three categories: 

Treatable health conditions such as cancer could become terminal and inoperable due to a delayed diagnosis. A misdiagnosis can result in a patient receiving unnecessary treatments, even surgery or cancer treatment, which could lead to physical harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and severe anxiety. 

Our medical malpractice attorneys have won millions for clients who suffered severe physical and emotional injuries because of diagnostic errors. In a recent case, we won a record verdict of $14 million against a doctor and hospital for delaying a cancer diagnosis after ignoring abnormal chest X-ray results. 

Medication Errors 

Medication errors in a hospital can lead to dangerous and even deadly side effects and drug interactions without addressing the original condition that requires treatment. The most common medication errors include the following: 

  • Incorrect dose 
  • Incorrect medication 
  • Improper administration 
  • Failure to prescribe or administer necessary medications 
  • Infusion errors 

Patients rightfully expect their health care providers to provide the appropriate medication during hospitalization. In addition to the physical injury, a medication error undermines the patient’s trust in the medical system, leading to long-term anxiety concerning medication and a future reluctance to seek care. 

Surgical Errors 

Surgery is a stressful event for most patients, even in the absence of complications. Surgical errors drastically add to the distress as a result of the devastating effects these errors can have, including the following: 

  • Sepsis and organ damage from foreign objects being left behind 
  • Brain damage from anesthesia errors or oxygen deprivation 
  • Infections 
  • Wrong-site surgeries 
  • Wrong-patient surgeries 

Surgical errors can lead to permanent physical disabilities, brain damage, and death, resulting in profound grief and psychological trauma that impacts the family as well as the patient. 

Birth Injuries 

Childbirth is a long-anticipated event that is supposed to be celebratory, but birth injuries leave parents and entire families with long-term emotional scars resulting from harm to a newborn or the mother. Psychological trauma following birth injuries may include the following: 

  • Depression and anxiety from being unable to hold a baby that must remain in the NICU 
  • Psychological trauma from witnessing a newborn baby’s severe medical condition or death in the NICU 
  • Grief stemming from the death of the mother or child 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Long-term depression and anxiety stemming from the overwhelming work and expense of caring for a profoundly disabled child 

Hospital Falls 

When you are a patient in a hospital, you are already in a fragile state. The risk of severe injury and emotional trauma from a fall is especially high during this time.  

Our attorneys won a $3.3 million settlement for the grieving family of a patient who died from severe head trauma caused by a fall while in the hospital. The patient was a known fall risk, but the hospital staff failed to provide appropriate supervision.  

Wrongful Death 

The Illinois Wrongful Death Act allows surviving family members of deceased medical malpractice victims to recover damages for their grief, sorrow, and mental suffering. 

Illinois families can also recover damages for the mental anguish the deceased suffered before death. This is known as a survival claim. 

How Is Compensation for Emotional Distress Determined in Illinois?

Compensation for damages in Illinois involves consideration of the total economic and non-economic damages in a case. The economic damages are the actual monetary losses that can be proven through documentation. Non-economic damages are intangible losses, such as pain, suffering, and emotional distress.  

The Illinois courts have disagreed about whether emotional distress should be included in pain and suffering damages or should be separate. In recent cases, the courts have allowed emotional distress to be awarded separately. 

Doctors during surgery

How to Prove Emotional Distress

To prevail in any medical malpractice case against a hospital, you must be able to prove the following: 

  1. You were a patient in the hospital, and hospital personnel consequently had a duty to provide you with a reasonable standard of care. 
  2. Hospital personnel failed to provide a reasonable standard of care. 
  3. You suffered a psychological injury you would not have suffered if the reasonable care standard had been met. 
  4. The breach of duty, and not something else, caused your emotional distress. 

Emotional injuries are more difficult to prove than physical ones because they are not visible. You will need to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you suffered a psychological injury to the extent that it has caused a substantial and observable impact on your well-being.  

A preponderance of the evidence means that your evidence must satisfy the court that your emotional distress claim is more likely true than not. This may be accomplished by presenting the court with one or more of the following types of evidence: 

  • A clinical diagnosis of a psychological or psychiatric disorder that stems from the incident 
  • The testimony of a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other qualified mental health professional 
  • The testimony of friends and family members who can testify to the differences they have observed before and after the incident 
  • Testimony by your employer about how the incident has affected your ability to work 
  • Documentation showing changes in your social activities or hobbies 
  • Documentation showing how the emotional distress has impacted your finances  

The Illinois courts have established that expert testimony is not required to prove emotional distress. However, expert testimony can be helpful in emotional distress cases. Our emotional distress lawyers have access to medical and psychological experts who may be able to provide compelling testimony in court to support your claim. 

How to Sue a Doctor for Emotional Distress

In any medical malpractice claim, you have the right to include all health care providers that caused or contributed to your distress, including doctors. You will need to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you had a doctor-patient relationship and that your injuries stemmed at least in part from the doctor’s failure to provide a reasonable standard of care. 

How Much Time Do I Have to File an Emotional Distress Lawsuit?

Like other states, Illinois limits the time to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. This is known as a statute of limitations. The Illinois statute of limitations for medical malpractice is two years after the date of the injury.  

If the injury is discovered later, you have two years from the date you discovered or reasonably should have discovered the injury to file your lawsuit. However, you cannot file a lawsuit more than four years after the date of the initial act or omission that precipitated your injury. 

If you are the family member of a patient whose injury resulted in death, you have one year from the date of death to file a lawsuit or until the date on which the statute of limitations would have expired for the deceased had they lived, whichever is later.  

There are some exceptions to the statute of limitations, including cases involving children and people with disabilities who cannot file. It’s important to contact a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible so they can help you determine how the statute of limitations applies to your case.  

How Levin & Perconti Can Help with Your Emotional Distress Claim

You may be entitled to substantial compensation if you have experienced emotional distress from medical malpractice in a hospital. Our medical malpractice lawyers at Levin & Perconti understand the emotional toll medical injuries can have on an individual and a family, and we are dedicated to pursuing justice. Contact us today for a free consultation.