By: Morgan Gaynor
Usually, physical injuries are the focus of
personal injury cases. However, accident victims sometimes suffer non-physical injuries
after a trauma as well. For example, a person involved in a severe car
accident may sustain a traumatic brain injury, develop post-traumatic
stress disorder, or become severely depressed. Though the line can be
hard to draw in many cases, these conditions are generally thought of
as mental rather than physical.
People suffering from post-traumatic mental conditions often seek treatment
or counseling from a psychologist. In turn, the defense usually hires
a psychologist of its own in cases where mental injuries are claimed.
Just as medical doctors for the defense minimize or deny physical injuries,
psychologists hired by the defense try to discredit claims of mental injury.
Psychological testimony creates some unique problems in the courtroom.
Physical injuries can usually be confirmed by x-rays or other tests like
MRI. On the other hand, psychological conditions can be much more elusive.
These conditions generally don’t show up on x-rays or MRIs, and
their presence can only be deduced indirectly from methods like psychological
testing. This means psychologists have a lot of leeway in arriving at
a diagnosis for a particular patient.
Many psychologists reach diagnoses based on the fifth and most current
edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
While diagnostic criteria in the manual is dressed up in professional
jargon, in some cases it is laughably vague. For example, the DSM-5 contains
the following description of something called Somatoform Disorder:
This category applies to presentations in which symptoms characteristic
of a somatic symptom and related disorder that cause clinically significant
distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas
of functioning predominate but do not meet the full criteria for any of
the disorders in the somatic symptom and related disorders diagnostic class.
Good luck scientifically determining what this means. Even many psychologists
have criticized it, pointing out that criteria this squishy can be applied
to almost anyone.
This lack of clarity can play into the hands of a defense psychologist.
Among the most devastating thing a genuinely injured person may hear is
that they are “malingering” (basically, faking their injury
or the severity of their symptoms) or being “hysterical” (being
overly emotional or dramatic, which is a charge almost invariably made
by a male psychologist against a female examinee). People who are genuinely
in distress justifiably feel that these accusations add insult to injury.
And of course, they can torpedo a case in the courtroom if a jury believes them.
Fortunately, a lawyer who does his or her homework can debunk these toxic
pronouncements. Careful preparation can show that defense psychologists
twist the data, ignore plausible explanations for a person’s behavior,
or fail to perform valid tests. Others cherry-pick the information they
receive, mentioning only things helpful to the defense while ignoring
evidence of real problems.
Psychological testimony does present some complex courtroom challenges.
However, preparation and attention to detail can expose dubious testimony