Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley, 96320

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBREYER
Citation521 U.S. 424,117 S.Ct. 2113,138 L.Ed.2d 560
Decision Date23 June 1997
Docket Number96320
PartiesCOMMUTER RAILROAD COMPANY, Petitioner, v. Michael BUCKLEY

521 U.S. 424
117 S.Ct. 2113
138 L.Ed.2d 560

METRO-NORTH COMMUTER RAILROAD COMPANY, Petitioner,

v.

Michael BUCKLEY.

No. 96-320.
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued Feb. 18, 1997.
Decided June 23, 1997.
Syllabus *

Respondent Buckley was exposed to insulation dust containing asbestos while employed as a pipefitter by petitioner railroad. Since attending an asbestos awareness class, he has feared, with some cause, that he will develop cancer. Thus far, periodic medical check-ups have revealed no evidence of asbestos-related disease. Buckley filed suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA)-which permits a railroad worker to recover for an "injury . . . resulting from'' his employer's "negligence,'' 45 U.S.C. §51-seeking damages for negligently inflicted emotional distress and to cover the cost of future check-ups. The District Court dismissed the suit after hearing Buckley's case, finding that, because there had been no physical impact from his exposure, the FELA did not permit recovery for his emotional injury. See Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 114 S.Ct. 2396, 129 L.Ed.2d 427. It did not discuss his medical monitoring claim. In reversing, the Second Circuit held that his contact with the insulation dust was what the Gottshall Court had called a "physical impact'' that, when present, permits a FELA plaintiff to recover for accompanying emotional distress, and that he could also recover the costs of check-ups made necessary by the exposure.

Held:

1.Buckley cannot recover emotional distress damages unless, and until, he manifests symptoms of a disease. Pp. ____-____.

(a) The critical issue is whether Buckley's physical contact with insulation dust amounts to a "physical impact'' as that term was used in Gottshall, an emotional distress case. In interpreting the word "injury'' in FELA §1, the Gottshall Court set forth several general legal principles applicable here: The FELA's purpose is basically humanitarian; the Act expressly abolishes or modifies a host of common-law limitations on recovery; it should be interpreted liberally, but liability rests upon negligence and the railroad is not an insurer for all employee injuries; and those common-law principles not rejected in the statute's text are entitled to great weight in interpreting the Act and play a significant role in determining whether, or when, an employee can recover damages for negligently inflicted emotional distress. The Court also identified more specific legal propositions: The common law of torts does not permit recovery for negligently inflicted emotional distress unless the distress falls within specific categories that amount to recovery-permitting exceptions; and FELA §1, mirroring many States' law, allows recovery for such distress where a plaintiff satisfies the common law's "zone of danger'' test, which permits plaintiffs to recover for emotional injury if they sustain a physical impact from, or are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by, a defendant's negligence. Pp. ____-____.

(b) The "physical impact'' to which Gottshall referred does not include a simple physical contact with a substance that might cause a disease at a substantially later time-where that substance, or related circumstance, threatens no harm other than that disease-related risk. First, each of the many state cases that Gottshall cited in support of the "zone of danger'' test involved a threatened physical contact that caused, or might have caused, immediate traumatic harm. Second, Gottshall's language, read in light of this precedent, seems similarly limited. Third, with only a few exceptions, common-law courts have denied recovery for emotional distress to plaintiffs who, like Buckley, are disease and symptom free. Fourth, general policy reasons to which Gottshall referred in explaining why common-law courts have restricted recovery for certain classes of negligently caused harms, see 512 U.S., at 557, 114 S.Ct., at 2411, are present in this case. Thus, there is no legal basis for adopting the Second Circuit's emotional-distress recovery rule. Pp. ____-____.

(c) Buckley's several arguments in reply-that his evidence of exposure and enhanced mortality risk is as strong a proof as an accompanying physical symptom of genuine emotional distress, that a series of common-law cases support his position, and that the FELA's "humanitarian'' nature warrants a holding in his favor-are unpersuasive. Pp. ____-____.

2.Buckley has not shown that he is legally entitled to recover medical monitoring costs. Insofar as the Second Circuit's opinion suggests it intended to apply the basic damages law principle that a plaintiff can recover medical expenses reasonably related to an underlying injury, the holding that the emotional distress here is not a compensable injury also requires reversal on this point. Insofar as the court rested its holding upon the broader ground that medical monitoring costs themselves represent a separate negligently caused economic injury for which FELA recovery is possible, it suggests the existence of a tort law cause of action permitting the recovery of medical cost damages in a lump sum and irrespective of insurance, a holding beyond the bounds of the "evolving common law'' as it currently stands. Gottshall, supra, at 558, 114 S.Ct., at 2411-2412. The cases authorizing recovery for medical monitoring for asymptomatic plaintiffs do not endorse such a full-blown, traditional tort law cause of action, but have instead suggested, or imposed, special limitations on that remedy. Given the mix of competing general policy considerations identified in Gottshall, Buckley's policy-based arguments that the FELA contains such an unqualified tort liability rule are unconvincing. Pp. ____-____.

79 F.3d 1337, reversed and remanded.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which STEVENS, J., joined.

Sheila L. Birnbaum, New York City, for petitioner.

Charles C. Goetsch, for respondent.

Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The basic question in this case is whether a railroad worker negligently exposed to a carcinogen (here, asbestos) but without symptoms of any disease can recover under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §51 et seq., for negligently inflicted emotional distress. We conclude that the worker before us here cannot recover unless, and until, he manifests symptoms of a disease. We also consider a related claim for medical monitoring costs, and we hold, for reasons set out below, that the respondent in this case has not shown that he is legally entitled to recover those costs.

I

Respondent, Michael Buckley, works as a pipefitter for Metro-North, a railroad. For three years (1985-1988) his job exposed him to asbestos for about one hour per working day. During that time Buckley would remove insulation from pipes, often covering himself with insulation dust that contained asbestos. Since 1987, when he attended an "asbestos awareness'' class, Buckley has feared that he would develop cancer-and with some cause, for his two expert witnesses testified that, even after taking account of his now-discarded 15-year habit of smoking up to a pack of cigarettes per day, the exposure created an added risk of death due to cancer, or to other asbestos-related diseases of either 1% to 5% (in the view of one of plaintiff's experts), or 1% to 3% (in the view of another). Since 1989, Buckley has received periodic medical check-ups for cancer and asbestosis. So far, those check-ups have not revealed any evidence of cancer or any other asbestos-related disease.

Buckley sued Metro-North under the FELA, a statute that permits a railroad worker to recover for an "injury . . . resulting . . . from'' his employer's "negligence.'' 45 U.S.C. §51. He sought damages for his emotional distress and to cover the cost of future medical check-ups. His employer conceded negligence, but it did not concede that Buckley had actually suffered emotional distress, and it argued that the FELA did not permit a worker like Buckley, who had suffered no physical harm, to recover for injuries of either sort. After hearing Buckley's case, the District Court dismissed the action. The court found that Buckley did not "offer sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that he suffered a real emotional injury.'' App. 623. And, in any event, Buckley suffered no "physical impact''; hence any emotional injury fell outside the limited set of circumstances in which, according to this Court, the FELA permits recovery. Id., at 620; see Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 114 S.Ct. 2396, 129 L.Ed.2d 427 (1994). The District Court did not discuss Buckley's further claim for the costs of medical monitoring.

Buckley appealed, and the Second Circuit reversed. 79 F.3d 1337 (1996). Buckley's evidence, it said, showed that his contact with the insulation dust (containing asbestos) was "massive, lengthy, and tangible,'' id., at 1345, and that the contact "would cause fear in a reasonable person,'' id., at 1344. Under these circumstances, the court held, the contact was what this Court in Gottshall had called a "physical impact''-a "physical impact'' that, when present, permits a FELA plaintiff to recover for accompanying emotional distress. The Second Circuit also found in certain of Buckley's workplace statements sufficient expression of worry to permit sending his emotional distress claim to a jury. Finally, the court held that Buckley could recover for the costs of medical check-ups because the FELA permits recovery of all reasonably incurred extra medical monitoring costs whenever a "reasonable physician would prescribe . . . a monitoring regime different than the one that...

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171 practice notes
  • Priselac v. The Chemours Co., 7:20-CV-190-D
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 28, 2022
    ...the significant legal and policy considerations that exist on both sides of the debate. See, e.g., Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley. 521 U.S. 424, 440-44 (1997). The Curl court recognized the complex policy decisions involved and concluded that the North Carolina General Assembly should......
  • Montgomery v. CSX Transp., Inc., No. 3903.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • December 6, 2004
    ...The Supreme Court has interpreted FELA's language liberally in light of its humanitarian purposes. Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S.Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 362 S.C. 544 State courts have concurrent jurisdiction to hear FELA claims. 45 U.S.C. § 56 (1986). A FELA ac......
  • Perrine v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours And Co., No. 34333
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 26, 2010
    ...may ... be thought too speculative to support recovery”).597 F.Supp.2d at 540 n. 10 (referencing Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S.Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 (1997)). Subsequently, in Hess v. A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children, No. 08-0229, 2009 WL 595602 (E.D.Pa. ......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • May 16, 2014
    ...from a diseasePage 16may recover for related negligently caused emotional distress. Id. (citing Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S. Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 (1997)). Accordingly, the Ayers Court held that "mental anguish damages resulting from the fear of developin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
169 cases
  • Priselac v. The Chemours Co., 7:20-CV-190-D
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 28, 2022
    ...the significant legal and policy considerations that exist on both sides of the debate. See, e.g., Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley. 521 U.S. 424, 440-44 (1997). The Curl court recognized the complex policy decisions involved and concluded that the North Carolina General Assembly should......
  • Montgomery v. CSX Transp., Inc., No. 3903.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • December 6, 2004
    ...The Supreme Court has interpreted FELA's language liberally in light of its humanitarian purposes. Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S.Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 362 S.C. 544 State courts have concurrent jurisdiction to hear FELA claims. 45 U.S.C. § 56 (1986). A FELA ac......
  • Perrine v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours And Co., No. 34333
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 26, 2010
    ...may ... be thought too speculative to support recovery”).597 F.Supp.2d at 540 n. 10 (referencing Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S.Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 (1997)). Subsequently, in Hess v. A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children, No. 08-0229, 2009 WL 595602 (E.D.Pa. ......
  • Blackmon v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., No. W2013-01605-COA-R3-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
    • May 16, 2014
    ...from a diseasePage 16may recover for related negligently caused emotional distress. Id. (citing Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 117 S. Ct. 2113, 138 L.Ed.2d 560 (1997)). Accordingly, the Ayers Court held that "mental anguish damages resulting from the fear of developin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • Courts as Policymakers: The Uneven Justice of Asbestos Mass Tort Litigation
    • United States
    • Looking back to move forward: resolving health & environmental crises Section I
    • October 11, 2020
    ...that caused an injury (insofar as exposure to asbestos dust was not deemed a physical impact). Metro-North Commuter R.R. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424, 444 (1997). 128. Henderson & Twerski, supra note 125, at 817–18. Courts in approximately 20 states allow recovery for medical monitoring for tox......
  • Making the Case for Causation in Toxic Tort Cases: Superfund Rules Don't Apply
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 40-7, July 2010
    • July 1, 2010
    ...Releases of Dioxin-Like Compounds in the U.S. for the Years 1987, 1995, and 2000 (2006). 16. See Metro-N. Commuter R.R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997). 17. See, e.g., Mergenthaler v. Asbestos Corp., 480 A.2d 647 (Del. 1984); Henry v. Dow Chem. Co., 701 N.W.2d 684 (Mich. 2005); Badillo ......

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