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Posttraumatic Stress Dishonesty


A court recently affirmed a jury verdict of $21 million in a single-plaintiff sexual harassment case in an opinion more absurd than any fanciful scenario even this author could conjure. The court wrote:

[T]he jury in this case could have found compelling [the plaintiff's] evidence that she would die an untimely death because of the effects of the harassment that [the defendant] knew existed and did nothing to stop. Alternatively, the jury could have found persuasive [the plaintiff's] evidence that her life was and would be completely joyless because the harassment had caused her to develop major depressive and post-traumatic stress disorder, changing the fundamental chemistry in her brain.

This opinion was written not by some addled trial judge decades ago, but by the Michigan Court of Appeals just last year.

What happened to the plaintiff in that case? The court described a pattern of foul language, practical jokes, and graphic behavior directed at the plaintiff by her coworkers over several years. All of the acts were in poor taste and some were egregious, but none involved an actual physical assault of the plaintiff. The plaintiff, who had a prior history of childhood sexual abuse and alcohol and cocaine addiction, claimed that the harassment caused her to relapse into alcoholism and to suffer Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. The court found that $21 million was a reasonable amount, considering that the plaintiff would live a "completely joyless" life until her "untimely death," given that the plaintiff's attorney had asked the jury to "ring the bell of justice" and award $140 million.

While it is tempting to consider this case as just an isolated and rare instance of junk science run amok, such an assumption would be dangerously naive. There are, unfortunately, a growing number of these types of decisions where scientifically laughable "expert" testimony is admitted and a sizable verdict for emotional damages results. More often than not, a PTSD diagnosis is found lurking somewhere within. The PTSD is eagerly sought by many plaintiffs looking to cash in on their workplace misfortune. An expert witness's attaching a PTSD label to a plaintiff (whether or not any valid scientific basis exists for doing so) suggests to a jury that the plaintiff has suffered a horrible torment akin to that suffered by torture victims and prisoners of war. Invoking the term "trauma" to characterize most of the workplace events that lead to employment lawsuits, however, is grossly overstating the case.

This article appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the Employee Relations Law Journal.

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