Metro North Commuter Railroad Co. v. Buckley (96-320), 521 U.S. 424 (1997)
[ Breyer ]
[ Ginsburg ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 96-320. Argued February 18, 1997 -- Decided June 23, 1997

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. 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.


1. Buckley cannot recover emotional distress damages unless, and until, he manifests symptoms of a disease. Pp. 3-13.

(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. 3-5.

(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, are present in this case. Thus, there is no legal basis for adopting the Second Circuit's emotional distress recovery rule. Pp. 5-11.

(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. 11-13.

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. 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. 13-20.

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.