Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997)

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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 checkups 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 checkups. 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 checkups made necessary by the exposure.

Held: 1. Buckley cannot recover emotional distress damages unless, and until, he manifests symptoms of a disease. Pp. 428-438. (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 FELA 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 FELA 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

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