PTSD After a Serious Car Accident

Car accidents are one of the leading causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the United States. Learn more about PTSD and how it can impact a car accident claim.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Millions of people are involved in car accidents each year. In 2020, nearly 40,000 people died on U.S. roads and about 2.3 million were injured.

People often associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with combat or being a victim of physical or sexual abuse. But car crash survivors develop PTSD too. According to the American Psychological Association, car accidents are the leading cause of PTSD among the general (non-military) population.

In this article, you'll learn a few key things about PTSD and car accident claims, including:

  • PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people develop after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying event.
  • About 9% of car accident survivors develop PTSD.
  • Symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person, but can include mood swings and behavioral changes.
  • PTSD is treatable with therapy and medication.
  • You can get compensation for PTSD after a car accident.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition that can affect people who have experienced or witnessed a terrifying event. The condition was likely first identified as "shell shock" in soldiers returning home from the first World War. Now the American Psychiatric Association has recognized PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a condition that applies to a wider range of human experiences.

The common thread through all PTSD cases is that the condition is triggered by a traumatic, stressful, or fear-inducing event. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that arises when a person's brain is unable to properly turn off the fight-or-flight reactions associated with a traumatic event. An adrenaline-fueled reaction to a dangerous event can be life-saving in the moment, but devastating in other situations when no actual risk exists.

Learn more about PTSD.

PTSD Symptoms

Symptoms of PTSD can pop up months or even years after the traumatic event. Unlike physical injuries suffered after a car crash, PTSD can be hard to identify, even by the person who is experiencing it.

If you have one or more of these symptoms, talk to a doctor about a potential PTSD diagnosis.

Intrusive memories

People with PTSD often have intrusive thoughts, memories, and nightmares about the traumatic event. They often experience significant anxiety around certain times of year or locations that remind them of the event.


A person with PTSD might go to great lengths to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event, including people, places, or other circumstances associated with the trauma. Avoidance can eventually lead to the development of social phobias, panic, and extreme anxiety.

Mood Changes

PTSD can present as mood shifts that might seem unrelated to the traumatic event at first. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, shame, negativity, numbness, and thoughts of suicide are common symptoms of PTSD.

Behavior Changes

PTSD is associated with behavioral changes called "hyperarousal." Examples of hyperarousal include constant alertness, irritability, quick temper, paranoia, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbance.

Complex PTSD

Scientists are beginning to distinguish between PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), in which exposure to prolonged, repeated trauma causes severe behavioral problems, including difficulty controlling emotions, substance abuse, eating disorders, or mental difficulties, including amnesia. Due to the repetitive-exposure aspect of C-PTSD, it is extremely unlikely to be linked to a car accident.

PTSD in Children

Young children often experience PTSD differently than adults. For example, a child with PTSD might have nightmares about monsters or other dangers instead of the traumatic event. Children may recreate the incident during play but have more difficulty expressing their feelings verbally than adults.

Parents and teachers should pay close attention to children who experience or witness traumatic events and look for signs of intrusive thoughts, mood changes, hyperarousal, and avoidance.

Treatment of PTSD

One of the tricky things about diagnosing and treating PTSD is that no two people experience it in exactly the same way. For some people, PTSD surfaces as bad dreams; for others, it's anxiety in crowded places, or repeatedly reliving the traumatic event as though it were actually happening again (flashbacks).

The most severe cases of PTSD can combine auditory hallucinations, paranoid ideation, and thoughts of hurting yourself or others (cases of this severity, despite media sensationalism, are exceedingly rare).

PTSD might show up right away or it might take longer to appear, like other car accident injuries that don't show up right away. Even people who develop some symptoms soon after the event can develop new symptoms much later.

PTSD is treatable. The most common PTSD treatments include:

A combination of therapy and medication probably won't get rid of PTSD, but treatment can make symptoms of PTSD more manageable and improve day-to-day life and relationships. Recovery from PTSD is typically a gradual and ongoing process.

Car Accident Claims: PTSD After a Car Accident

If you develop PTSD after a car accident that wasn't your fault, you can get compensation for your condition.

First, you'll have to seek necessary medical care after your car accident. In addition to proving fault for the car accident, you will have to show through your medical records or expert witness testimony that:

  • a medical professional has diagnosed you with PTSD
  • your PTSD is connected to your car accident, and
  • your car accident PTSD is negatively impacting your life.

Compensation for PTSD After a Car Accident

The value of your car accident PTSD claim ("damages") depends on your individual experience. Insurance adjusters, judges, and juries typically consider:

  • whether the accident involved fatalities
  • the nature and severity of all accident-related injuries
  • your prognosis for a full recovery and potential need for future medical treatment
  • the financial impact of your PTSD (medical bills, lost wages) and
  • the "pain and suffering" (physical and mental) caused by your PTSD.

What Should You Do?

If you have any symptoms of PTSD following an automobile accident, you should get medical treatment and talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and a personal injury lawsuit.

When it comes to car accident PTSD, be careful not to settle your car accident case too soon. You'll want to have a clear sense of the nature and extent of your injuries before you settle your claim. Lawyers call this reaching your maximum medical improvement. PTSD treatment can be long-lasting in the wake of car accident trauma. But once you settle, your case is closed forever. If your PTSD is more serious than you first thought, you can't go back and ask for more money later.

A knowledgeable car accident attorney will fight to make sure that you're fairly compensated for your mental anguish and the life disruptions you've experienced. Learn more about how an attorney can help you. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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