The Newly-Released DSM-5 and Its Use in Personal Injury Cases

Olson Brooksby primarily defends high-exposure product liability and personal injury cases.  Over the past few years, it seems as though many of these cases involve personal injury claims for mental disorders, particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), as a result of the alleged accident at issue in the lawsuit.

PTSD is a mental disorder within the anxiety classification of disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or “DSM”.  It is important to be familiar with the most recent version of the DSM when defending against a personal injury claim filed by a plaintiff who alleges a mental disorder.

In order to assist companies defending against personal injury claims requesting damages for various mental disorders, this article discusses the DSM and the recently-released DSM-5, and explains why it is important for personal injury defense lawyers to be familiar with the DSM-5 when defending against personal injury claims.

The DSM: The Single Most Authoritative Manual Regarding the Diagnosis of Mental Disorders

The DSM is universally recognized as the single most authoritative manual regarding the diagnosis of mental disorders.  The current version of the DSM, the DSM-5,was just released this week.  The previous version, the DSM-IV, was published in 1994 and the text was revised (DSM-IV-(TR)) in 2000.

The usefulness and credibility of the DSM for education, research, clinical, or forensic work depends upon the support of an extensive empirical foundation.  The DSM was created by the  American Psychiatric Association (APA) in order to provide a helpful guide to clinical practice with a uniform nomenclature that spans disciplines and purposes.  While a complete history of the development of the DSM-5 and earlier editions is far beyond the scope of this article, a short synopsis is crucial to the understanding of the universal acceptance of the text as authoritative.

The Principal Purpose of the DSM

The undisputed principal purpose of the DSM is to aid clinicians in the diagnosis of mental disorders, not for forensic purposes.  In fact, the DSM-IV and 5 both include disclaimers that spell out the significant risks that are present within the DSM categories, criteria, and textual descriptions when they are employed for forensic purposes.  The primary danger is that the diagnostic criteria will be misused or misunderstood.  This is because of the imperfect fit between the questions of ultimate concern to the law and the information used by clinicians to render a clinical diagnosis.

Additionally, in a forensic setting, nonclinicians should be cautioned that a diagnosis does not carry any necessary implications regarding the causes of the individual’s mental disorder or impairments.  The clinical diagnosis of a DSM mental disorder is not sufficient to establish the existence for legal purposes of a “mental disorder”.  In determining whether an individual meets a particular legal standard (e.g., a particular disability), additional information is usually required beyond the DSM diagnosis.

The DSM provides categorical classifications that divide mental disorders into types based on criteria sets with defining features.  It is a classification of mental disorders that was developed for use in clinical, educational and research settings.  The DSM is meant to serve as a guideline to be informed by clinical judgment and is not meant to be used in a cookbook fashion.  It is essential that the DSM not be applied by untrained individuals, since clinical training, judgment and experience are essential to proper diagnosis

The Development of the DSM-5

A Task Force and Work Groups made up of more than 160 world-renowned clinicians and researchers proposed the draft criteria for the DSM-5.  Those clinicians and researchers, all volunteers, consisted of experts in neuroscience, biology, genetics, statistics, epidemiology, social and behavioral sciences, nosology, and public health.

Applying Knowledge of the DSM-5 to Claims in Personal Injury Cases

Personal injury defense lawyers should be prepared to cross-examine forensic psychologists who testify on behalf of plaintiffs who allegedly suffer from any kind of mental disorder.  There are a number of reasons that extensive preparation is required when defending against personal injury claims for mental disorders, particularly claims for PTSD.  These include the nomenclature involved in the diagnosis, the relative complexity and universal acceptance of the DSM-5 as the authoritative source for the PTSD diagnostic criteria, and the dangers of malingering when financial remuneration is at issue.  Other reasons include what is typically a lack of the critical additional information regarding a plaintiff’s background, inadequate testing, improper reading of (or absence of) validity scales in a given standardized test, or an absence of reliance on any other data or criteria by the forensic psychologist testifying on behalf of the plaintiff.

If defense counsel is thoroughly familiar with the DSM-5, the DSM-5 criteria and commentary on the particular mental disorder at issue, and is prepared for an effective cross-examination of the plaintiff’s treating or forensic psychologist, the damages in cases involving personal injury claims for mental disorders can be significantly reduced or eliminated.