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Somatic Symptom Disorder - What is it and how can we prove it?

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Justin A. Villeneuve

Lawyer - Personal Injury

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) recently crystallised the importance of considering how psychiatric injuries accompany physical ones. In Saadati v. Moorhead, Saadati was in a car accident and suffered psychological and emotional trauma. He was awarded damages for mental injury based on the evidence of a lay witness who explained that Saadati’s personality changed post-accident. Expert evidence was not necessary, and the award did not need an attached “recognizable psychiatric illness.” The court found that requiring mental injury to pass the threshold of medical-expert testimony showing a “recognizable psychiatric illness,” while not requiring the same “classificatory label” of physical injury, would amount to unequal protection for those with a mental injury.

This SCC decision confirmed that the law of negligence accords identical treatment to mental and physical injury. This is a decision that is often looked at, as of late, with an overwhelming increase in the diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder (SSD). In dealing with my fair share of personal injury cases, I’ve started to notice this increase. The criteria for the illness remain broad, and like so many other cognitive/psychological conditions, it tends to be met with quite a bit of push back from defendants.

The DSM-5 characterises the condition as follows:

“SSD is characterised by somatic symptoms that are either very distressing or result in significant disruption of functioning, as well as excessive and disproportionate thoughts, feelings and behaviours regarding those symptoms. To be diagnosed with SSD, the individual must be persistently symptomatic (typically at least for 6 months).”

I tend to see this diagnosis when clients are suffering from longstanding subjective physical symptoms. The client is in extreme physical distress, but there’s no explanation of where this additional distress comes from. The pain felt by the client is otherwise disproportionate to the actual seriousness of the injury. I’ve always viewed it as an uncontrollable dispute between the body and the mind. I say this because typically the body is ready to be healed but the mind isn’t.

The proof isn’t as solid as we wish it was. The driving force of the diagnosis is the client’s own reaction to assessment and medical investigation. An SSD case can often be met by an assumption of “fake” injuries or plaintiff malingering. However, the SCC worded it properly when stating that the trier of fact should “not [be] concerned with the diagnosis, but with symptoms and their effects.” This point should always be emphasised when dealing with SSD cases. Focusing on the genuine statement of lay witnesses and providing a clear historical approach of the impact caused by the negligent act, remains the best means to put forward a strong SSD case.

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