Consol. Rail Corp. v. Gottshall

Decision Date24 June 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-1956,92-1956
Citation512 U.S. 532,129 L. Ed. 2 d 427,114 S. Ct. 2396 (1994)
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

512 U.S. 532, 129 L. Ed. 2d 427, 114 S. Ct. 2396, 1994 U.S. LEXIS 4821, SCDB 1993-086


Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 558. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 559.


Ralph G. Wellington argued the cause for petitioner in both cases. With him on the briefs were Nancy Winkelman, Bruce B. Wilson, and Lucy S. L. Amerman.

William L. Myers, Jr., argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent Gottshall. J. Michael Farrell argued the cause for respondent Carlisle. With him on the brief was William L. Bowe.


Together with Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Carlisle, also on certiorari to the same court (see this Court's Rule 12.2).

Justice Thomas

delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases require us to determine the proper standard for evaluating claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress that are brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Because the standard adopted by the Court of Appeals is inconsistent with the principles embodied in the statute and with relevant common-law doctrine, we reverse the judgments below.


Respondents James Gottshall and Alan Carlisle each brought suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U. S. C. §§ 51-60, against their former employer, petitioner Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). We set forth the facts of each case in turn.


Gottshall was a member of a Conrail work crew assigned to replace a stretch of defective track on an extremely hot and humid day. The crew was under time pressure, and so the men were discouraged from taking scheduled breaks.


They were, however, allowed to obtain water as needed. Two and one-half hours into the job, a worker named Richard Johns, a longtime friend of Gottshall, collapsed. Gottshall and several others rushed to help Johns, who was pale and sweating profusely. They were able to revive him by administering a cold compress. Michael Norvick, the crew supervisor, then ordered the men to stop assisting Johns and to return to work. Five minutes later, Gottshall again went to Johns' aid after seeing his friend stand up and collapse. Realizing that Johns was having a heart attack, Gottshall began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He continued the process for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, Norvick attempted to summon assistance, but found that his radio was inoperative; unbeknownst to him, Conrail had temporarily taken the nearest base station off the air for repairs. Norvick drove off to get help, but by the time he returned with paramedics, Johns had died. The paramedics covered the body with a sheet, ordered that it remain undisturbed until the coroner could examine it, and directed the crew not to leave until the coroner had arrived. Norvick ordered the men back to work, within sight of Johns' covered body. The coroner, who arrived several hours later, reported that Johns had died from a heart attack brought on by the combined factors of heat, humidity, and heavy exertion.

The entire experience left Gottshall extremely agitated and distraught. Over the next several days, during which he continued to work in hot and humid weather conditions, Gottshall began to feel ill. He became preoccupied with the events surrounding Johns' death, and worried that he would die under similar circumstances. Shortly after Johns' funeral, Gottshall was admitted to a psychiatric institution, where he was diagnosed as suffering from major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. During the three weeks he spent at the institution, Gottshall experienced nausea, insomnia, cold sweats, and repetitive nightmares concerning


Johns' death. He lost a great deal of weight and suffered from suicidal preoccupations and anxiety. Gottshall has continued to receive psychological treatment since his discharge from the hospital.

Gottshall sued Conrail under FELA for negligent infliction of emotional distress. He alleged that Conrail's negligence had created the circumstances under which he had been forced to observe and participate in the events surrounding Johns' death. The District Court granted Conrail's motion for summary judgment, holding that FELA did not provide a remedy for Gottshall's emotional injuries.

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and remanded for trial. Gottshall v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 988 F. 2d 355 (1993). The court observed that most States recognize a common-law cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but limit recovery to certain classes of plaintiffs or categories of claims through the application of one or more tests. Id., at 361 (discussing "physical impact," "zone of danger," and "relative bystander" tests). The Third Circuit suggested that because "an emotional injury is easier to fake" than a physical injury, these tests have been "judicially developed to screen causes of action and send only the meritorious ones to juries." Ibid.

The court below identified what it considered to be a fundamental tension between the restrictive attitude of the common law toward claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress on the one hand, and the general policy underlying FELA on the other. According to the Third Circuit, the common law places harsh and arbitrary limits on recovery for emotional injury, while FELA has consistently been interpreted to accord liberal relief to railroad workers injured through the negligence of their employers. Id., at 367-368 (discussing cases).

In the Third Circuit's view, the only way to reconcile the apparent tension was to give preference to the liberal recov


ery policy embodied in FELA over the common law: "[D]octrinal common law distinctions are to be discarded when they bar recovery on meritorious FELA claims." Id., at 369. Determining that judges could weed out fraudulent emotional injury claims through careful scrutiny of the facts, the court held that the facts alleged in support of a claim under FELA for negligent infliction of emotional distress must "provide a threshold assurance that there is a likelihood of genuine and serious emotional injury." Id., at 371. The Third Circuit suggested that a court's factual inquiry might include consideration of the plaintiff's claim in light of the present state of the common law.

After reviewing the facts of Gottshall's case, the Third Circuit concluded that Gottshall had made a sufficient showing that his injuries were genuine and severe. Id., at 374. Because his claim had met the court's threshold "genuineness" test, the court next considered whether the claim adequately alleged the usual FELA elements of breach of a duty of care (that is, conduct unreasonable in the face of a foreseeable risk of harm), injury, and causation. The panel majority concluded that there were genuine issues of material fact concerning whether Gottshall's injuries were foreseeable by Conrail, whether Conrail had acted unreasonably, and whether Conrail's conduct had caused cognizable injury to Gottshall. The court therefore remanded for trial. Id., at 383.

Judge Roth dissented in part because she believed that there was no triable issue regarding breach of duty. She reasoned that "outside of the interruption of the communications link, the allegedly negligent conditions created by Conrail at the time of Johns' collapse consisted in fact of the members of the work gang performing the negotiated duties of their jobs under conditions which may indeed have been difficult but which had occurred in the past and will probably occur again in the future." Id., at 385. In her view, these


negotiated duties could not support a finding of negligence. Judge Roth concluded that "Conrail could not reasonably have foreseen that its negligence in interrupting the work gang's communication^] link might cause James Gottshall's severe emotional reaction to the death of Richard Johns." Id., at 386.


Respondent Carlisle began working as a train dispatcher for Conrail in 1976. In this position, he was responsible for ensuring the safe and timely movement of passengers and cargo. Aging railstock and outdated equipment made Car-lisle's job difficult. Reductions in Conrail's work force required Carlisle to take on additional duties and to work long hours. Carlisle and his fellow dispatchers frequently complained about safety concerns, the high level of stress in their jobs, and poor working conditions. In 1988, Carlisle became trainmaster in the South Philadelphia yards. With this promotion came added responsibilities that forced him to work erratic hours. Carlisle began to experience insomnia, headaches, depression, and weight loss. After an extended period during which he was required to work 12- to 15-hour shifts for weeks at a time, Carlisle suffered a nervous breakdown.

Carlisle sued Conrail under FELA for negligent infliction of emotional distress. He alleged that Conrail had breached its duty to provide him with a safe workplace by forcing him to work under unreasonably stressful conditions, and that this breach had resulted in foreseeable stress-related health problems. At trial, Carlisle called medical experts who testified that his breakdown and ensuing severe depression were caused at least in part by the strain of his job. The jury awarded Carlisle $386,500 in damages.

The Third Circuit affirmed, "uphold[ing] for the first time a claim under the FELA for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising from work-related stress." Carlisle v. Con


solidated Rail Corp., 990 F. 2d 90, 97-98 (1993). In rejecting Conrail's argument that Carlisle had failed to make out a claim under FELA because he had...

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