Post Authored By: Katherine Withers & Whitney Barr

Due to the subjective nature of pain, two plaintiffs injured in identical situations are not likely to experience pain identically. All bodily injuries are a combination of physical and emotional disturbance and will vary in its presentation. A plaintiff may be able to walk away from a car accident with only minor cuts and bruises, but still experience a significant amount of emotional injury manifesting itself through physical symptoms.

While laboratory tests or physical examination may not be able to pinpoint a specific physiological cause of the plaintiff’s pain, there is nothing imaginary about the plaintiff’s perception of their illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognizes these seemingly unexplainable physical symptoms as somatoform disorders, which are legitimate mental health conditions.[1]

Historically, there has been concern that an individual suffering from psychosomatic injuries is intentionally and falsely complaining about their condition for external gains, like attention or compensation. However, the DSM recognizes diagnostic incompatibility between somatoform disorders and malingering by specifically excluding symptoms that are intentionally feigned or produced in a diagnosis of a somatoform disorder.[2] Given advancements in medical technology, malingering can be readily uncovered through physical examination, while psychosomatic symptoms persist even without physiological explanation.

The degree of liability has been expanded for psychosomatic injuries. While it may be more difficult to measure or quantify pain that cannot be explained by any objective criteria, liability still exists. The Seventh Circuit addressed legal recoveries for psychosomatic pain when it reviewed the denial of disability benefits to the plaintiff in Carradine v. Barnhart.[3] Following a back injury from a slip and fall on ice, the plaintiff-appellant was denied benefits due to a diagnosis of a somatoform disorder.[4] The Seventh Circuit reversed that decision and held that disabling pain, regardless of its source being purely psychological, does not disentitle an applicant to benefits.[5]  The court recognized that a plaintiff experiencing pain more acutely because of a psychiatric condition is a plaintiff experiencing genuine pain, not a plaintiff fabricating a condition for personal gain.

A plaintiff suffering from psychosomatic injuries should be compensated for pain and suffering where there is evidence of physical injury. This is consistent with the core premise of tort law, which is to ensure the plaintiff receives just compensation for any loss or injury proximately caused by the tortfeasor. Where the plaintiff as sustained personal injuries, the plaintiff is entitled to recover all damages which are the natural and proximate result of the tort.[6]

[1] Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders 311 (5th ed. 2013).

[2] Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders 309 (5th ed. 2013).

[3] Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 754 (7th Cir. 2004).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] City of Chicago v. McLean, 133 Ill. 148, 153 24 N.E. 527, 528 (1890).

About the Authors:

This article was coauthored by @TheBar Steering Committee Member, Whitney Barr, and Chicago-Kent School of Law student, Katherine Withers as a part of the Chicago Bar Association’s Career Immersion Mentoring Program. Katherine is a rising 2L and a member of the Chicago-Kent Law Review.

Whitney Barr is an attorney at David A. Axelrod & Associates. Whitney graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law in May of 2021 where she was a teaching fellow and member of the SLU National Moot Court Team. Whitney was also a student-attorney in the Human Rights Clinic where she pursued impact litigation. She is licensed to practice in Illinois and Missouri. Whitney is passionate about social justice and maintains a commitment to public service via pro bono work and volunteering.