Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co. v. Buckley (U.S. 1997)

Procedural History: Buckley sued Metro-N. under the FELA and sought damages for emotional distress [and to cover the cost of future medical checkups]. Metro-N. conceded negligence but asserted that Buckley had not actually suffered emotional distress and that the FELA did not allow recovery for workers who had suffered no physical harm. The District Court dismissed the action.

Facts: Buckley works as a pipefitter for Metro-N. and for 3 years, his job exposed him to asbestos for about one hour a day. Buckley removed insulation from pipes, often covering himself in asbestos dust. After attending an “asbestos awareness” class, he became frightened of his increased risk of death due to cancer or asbestos-related diseases. He has received periodic medical checkups ever since, but has not shown symptoms of cancer or another asbestos-related disease.

Issue: Did the physical contact with asbestos dust constitute as “physical impact” recoverable under the FELA so as to allow plaintiff to recover for emotional damages?

Rules:

Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) § 1:

Every common carrier by railroad is liable in damages to any person suffering injury while employed by the carrier if the injury results from carrier negligence.

FELA sometimes permits recovery for damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, particularly if it satisfies the common law’s “zone of danger” test.

Those plaintiffs who sustain a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct are allowed to recover.

Application: “Physical impact” does not include a simple physical contact with a substance that might cause a disease at a substantially later time, where the substance threatens no [immediate] harm other than the disease-related risk.

Conclusion: Where a plaintiff offers no symptoms of disease and there is not an immediate threat to the physical contact, the FELA does not allow recovery for emotional distress claims.

A worker cannot recover under the FELA unless an asbestos-exposure victim actually manifests symptoms of a disease.

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