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Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company v. Buckley

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Buckley (Plaintiff) sued Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company (Defendant) for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he was exposed to asbestos while employed by Defendant.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    An employee cannot recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he has not shown any physical signs of suffering from disease.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff was employed by Defendant and was exposed to asbestos during that employment. Plaintiff did not show any physical signs of suffering from disease as a result of this exposure. After Plaintiff attended an asbestos awareness class, he brought suit against Defendant for negligent infliction of emotional distress and sought to recover damages for the cost of future medical checkups and emotional distress. The trial court dismissed the claims, finding that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) did not allow recovery without physical impact. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that his physical impact with asbestos dust which accompanied his emotional distress was sufficient to meet the physical impact requirement in the statute. The court of appeals reversed and Defendant appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

    Issue.

    Can an employee recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he has not shown any physical signs of suffering from disease?

    Held.

    (Breyer, J.) No. An employee cannot recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress when he has not shown any physical signs of suffering from disease. Only those who sustained a physical impact or were in immediate risk of physical harm as a result of allegedly negligent conduct can recover for emotional injury. Plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos only poses some risk of future disease and has not put him at immediate risk of physical harm. Common law courts have also denied recovery to individuals exposed to asbestos but symptom free. Reversed and remanded.

    Concurrence.

    (Ginsburg, J.) Plaintiff’s claim of emotional distress fails because he has not presented evidence of severe emotional distress.

    Discussion.

    This case was decided under FELA, but the opinion noted common law tort doctrine as well. Such cases apply a “zone of danger†test that requires an immediate risk of physical harm. Some courts have allowed for recovery for the emotional distress suffered between the time of the anxiety-creating event and the negative test results.


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