Carlisle v. Consolidated Rail Corp.

Decision Date29 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-1263,92-1263
Citation990 F.2d 90
PartiesAlan CARLISLE v. CONSOLIDATED RAIL CORPORATION, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

J. Michael Farrell (argued), Philadelphia, PA, for appellee.

Jonathan F. Altman (argued), Jonathan F. Altman, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, for appellant.

Before MANSMANN and ROTH, Circuit Judges and RESTANI, Judge, U.S. Court of International Trade. 1

OPINION OF THE COURT

ROTH, Circuit Judge:

Alan Carlisle, a former railroad worker, sued his employer under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Carlisle alleged that his employer, Consolidated Rail Corporation ("Conrail"), breached its duty to provide a safe workplace by requiring him to work under unreasonably stressful and dangerous conditions, which resulted in foreseeable injuries to his health. At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Carlisle, awarding him $386,500 in damages. Conrail moved for judgment n.o.v., alleging that the facts submitted to the jury were legally insufficient to support the verdict, and moved, in the alternative, for a new trial based on alleged trial errors. Conrail now appeals from an order of the district court, 790 F.Supp. 521, denying Conrail's post-trial motions. For the reasons discussed below, we will affirm.

I.

Alan Carlisle started working on the railroad in 1973 as a ticket agent for the Reading Railroad, rising rapidly to positions as a tower man, a block operator, and finally a train dispatcher. Carlisle worked for Conrail from its formation in 1976 until 1988, first as a train dispatcher and later as a supervisor of all rail operations in the Philadelphia area. Train dispatchers and their supervisors are responsible for the safe movement of trains carrying passengers, freight and hazardous materials.

Beginning in 1984, Conrail sharply reduced its workforce, which, in combination with the risks presented by the company's aging railstock and outdated switching equipment, increased the stress and responsibility of dispatchers' and supervisors' jobs. As a dispatcher, Carlisle was under constant pressure to achieve on-time performance for the trains. Carlisle testified at trial that he was made increasingly anxious by Conrail's repeated instructions to ignore safety concerns, such as malfunctioning equipment or poor maintenance, that would have slowed the movement of trains.

In 1988, Carlisle was moved to a trainmaster position in the South Philadelphia yards, which required him to work long and erratic hours as a troubleshooter, often in dangerous areas. Despite the new job assignment, Carlisle also continued to work occasionally as a supervisor and dispatcher, retaining many of the job responsibilities of his earlier position. Conrail had cut the number of people staffing each shift from eleven to four, requiring most employees in Conrail's dispatching office to double up on responsibilities. Carlisle testified at trial that, as a result of being overworked and burdened with both excessive responsibility and an abusive, alcoholic supervisor in the South Philadelphia yards, he experienced insomnia, fatigue, headaches, depression, sleepwalking and substantial weight-loss. Carlisle testified further that, as a result of being made to work 12 to 15 hour shifts for 15 consecutive days in August, 1988, his stress-related problems finally culminated in a nervous breakdown. At trial, Carlisle put on testimony by an expert on emotional stress who stated that Carlisle had suffered a bout of major depression and was disabled from returning to his job as a train dispatcher. Carlisle never returned to work for Conrail, choosing instead to pursue new careers first as a real estate agent and then as a secondary-school teacher.

Carlisle introduced evidence showing that his emotional and physical injuries were a foreseeable result of his working conditions. Over defendant's objection, the court admitted into evidence a series of depositions, taken in a separate case, 2 in which Carlisle's co-workers and subordinates testified that their jobs as dispatchers and supervisors in the Philadelphia Conrail offices had caused them to suffer cardiac arrests, nervous breakdowns, and a variety of emotional problems such as depression, paranoia and insomnia. Carlisle testified that the train dispatchers he supervised often complained about Conrail's outdated equipment and about the long hours and high level of stress in their jobs; Carlisle, in turn, passed on their complaints to his supervisors and added his own concerns about the excessive hours and stress of his job. He received no response to these complaints.

The trial court also admitted into evidence two reports from the Federal Railway Administration, one that documented the stressful nature of a train dispatcher's job and one that criticized the outdated equipment and hazardous working conditions at Conrail's Philadelphia dispatching office.

II.

Carlisle brought this action in federal district court under the FELA, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60 (1988). This appeal is taken from a final order of the district court and thus this Court's jurisdiction rests on 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988).

Conrail appeals the denial of its motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the grounds that Carlisle presented facts that were legally insufficient to support recovery under the FELA for injuries resulting from negligent infliction of emotional distress. Conrail also appeals the denial of its motion for a new trial, alleging a variety of trial errors. We will first consider the district court's interpretation and application of the law regarding the FELA and then consider Conrail's allegations of trial error. 3

Our review of the district court's interpretation and application of legal precedent governing FELA liability for emotional injury is plenary. Dent v. Cunningham, 786 F.2d 173, 175 (3d Cir.1986). Our review of findings of fact by the district court follows a clearly erroneous standard. Leeper v. United States, 756 F.2d 300, 308 (3d Cir.1985). Our review of the district court's rulings on the relevance and admissibility of evidence follows an abuse of discretion standard. United States v. Driggs, 823 F.2d 52, 54 (3d Cir.1987).

Conrail claims that this Court's precedent does not allow recovery for job stress-related injuries absent a precipitating accident causing injury or fright. At the time of trial, this Court had never upheld a claim under the FELA for injuries absent these factors. Yet, such cases explicitly were decided on a case-by-case, fact-specific basis and held open the possibility of recovery. Indeed, since Carlisle's trial we have expanded the basis for recovery under the FELA. In Gottshall v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 988 F.2d 355 (3d Cir.1993), we upheld a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress under the FELA, but under factual conditions quite different from this case. On the facts of this case, we will affirm for the first time the grant of damages under the FELA for negligent infliction of emotional distress for work stress-related injuries. This holding rests on evidence admitted at trial which reasonably supports a finding by the jury that Conrail breached its well-established duty under the FELA to provide a safe workplace, that such injuries were the foreseeable result of Conrail's negligence, and that Carlisle's demanding and dangerous workplace caused his emotional and physical injuries.

A. Current FELA Jurisprudence

Congress enacted the FELA in 1908 to provide compensation for railway employees suffering job-related injuries caused by the negligence of their employer. The FELA, as codified, provides that every railroad "shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier ... resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of [the railroad]." 45 U.S.C. § 51. As stated by the Supreme Court: "We have recognized generally that the FELA is a broad remedial statute, and have adopted a 'standard of liberal construction in order to accomplish [Congress'] objectives.' " Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Buell, 480 U.S. 557, 562, 107 S.Ct. 1410, 1414, 94 L.Ed.2d 563 (1987) (citation omitted). Thus, an employee can recover under the FELA as long as the employer's negligence "played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought." Rogers v. Missouri Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 506, 77 S.Ct. 443, 448, 1 L.Ed.2d 493 (1957); Pehowic v. Erie Lackawanna R.R. Co., 430 F.2d 697, 699 (3d Cir.1970) (quoting Rogers ). The FELA imposes on railroads a clear duty to provide their employees with a safe workplace. Sano v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 282 F.2d 936, 937 (3d Cir.1960).

In deciding which injuries are compensable under the statute, FELA jurisprudence "gleans guidance from common-law developments." Buell, 480 U.S. at 568, 107 S.Ct. at 1417. However, determining the scope of FELA liability is distinctly "a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differing conceptions of negligence applicable under state and local laws...." Urie v. Thompson, 337 U.S. 163, 174, 69 S.Ct. 1018, 1027, 93 L.Ed. 1282 (1949). While the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress was unknown in 1908, mental distress law has evolved to the point where all states have recognized the tort, but with a wide array of threshold tests and limitations. An American Law Reports annotation noted many years ago that "[t]he case law in the field [of emotional distress] is in an almost unparalleled state of confusion and any attempt at a consistent exegesis of the authorities is likely to break down in embarrassed complexity." 4 This wide divergence among states in their doctrinal approach to recovery for emotional injury continues to this day. 5

In Buell, the Supreme Court declined to decide whether wholly emotional injuries arising from...

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