Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Ayers
Annotate this Case
538 U.S. 135 (2003)
OCTOBER TERM, 2002
NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILWAY CO. v. AYERS ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF KANAWHA COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA
No. 01-963. Argued November 6, 2002-Decided March 10,2003
Alleging that petitioner Norfolk & Western Railway Company (Norfolk) had negligently exposed them to asbestos and thereby caused them to contract the occupational disease asbestosis, respondents, six former Norfolk employees (asbestosis claimants), brought this suit in a West Virginia state court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FE LA or Act). Section 1 of the FELA provides: "Every common carrier by railroad while engaging in [interstate commerce], shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce ... for such injury ... resulting in whole or in part from the [carrier's] negligence." As an element of their damages, the asbestosis claimants sought recovery for mental anguish based on their fear of developing cancer. The trial court instructed the jury that a plaintiff who demonstrated a reasonable fear of cancer related to proven physical injury from asbestos was entitled to compensation for that fear as a part of the damages awardable for pain and suffering. The court also instructed the jury not to reduce recoveries because of nonrailroad exposures to asbestos, so long as the jury found that Norfolk was negligent and that dust exposures at Norfolk contributed, however slightly, to each plaintiff's injuries. The court rejected Norfolk's proposed instructions, which would have (1) ruled out damages for fear of cancer unless the claimant proved both an actual likelihood of developing cancer and physical manifestations of the alleged fear, and (2) required the jury to apportion damages between Norfolk and other employers alleged to have contributed to an asbestosis claimant's disease. The jury returned damages awards for each claimant. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia denied discretionary review.
1. Mental anguish damages resulting from the fear of developing cancer may be recovered under the FELA by a railroad worker suffering from the actionable injury asbestosis caused by work-related exposure to asbestos. Pp. 145-159.
(a) The trial judge correctly stated the law when he charged the jury that an asbestosis claimant, upon demonstrating a reasonable fear of cancer stemming from his present disease, could recover for that fear
as part of asbestosis-related pain and suffering damages. In so ruling, this Court follows the path marked by its decisions in Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall, 512 U. S. 532, and Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U. S. 424. Gottshall and Metro-North describe two categories of claims for emotional distress damages: Stand-alone emotional distress claims not provoked by any physical injury, for which recovery is sharply circumscribed by the common-law zone-of-danger test; and emotional distress claims brought on by a physical injury, for which pain and suffering recovery is permitted. This case is properly placed in the emotional distress stemming from a physical injury category. The parties agree that the claimants suffer from asbestosis, a cognizable injury under the FELA. As Metro-North plainly indicates, when fear of cancer "accompanies a physical injury," pain and suffering damages may include compensation for that fear. E. g., 521 U. S., at 430. The Court adheres to the clear line its recent decisions delineate. Pp. 145-148.
(b) Unlike stand-alone claims for negligently inflicted emotional distress, claims for pain and suffering associated with a physical injury are traditionally compensable. By 1908, when the FELA was enacted, the common law had evolved to encompass apprehension of future harm as a component of pain and suffering. In recent years, of the many courts that have ruled on the question presented here, a clear majority sustain recovery. Arguing against this trend, Norfolk and its amici assert that the asbestosis claimants' alleged cancer fears are too remote from asbestosis to warrant inclusion in their pain and suffering awards. Amicus United States refers to the "separate disease rule," under which most courts have held that the statute of limitations runs separately for each asbestos-related disease. Because the asbestosis claimants may bring a second action if cancer develops, the Government argues, cancer-related damages are unwarranted here. The question, as the Government frames it, is not whether the asbestosis claimants can recover for fear of cancer, but when. But those claimants did not seek, and the trial court did not allow, discrete damages for their increased risk of future cancer. Instead, they sought damages for their current injury, which, they allege, encompasses a present fear that the toxic exposure causative of asbestosis may later result in cancer. The Government's "when, not whether," argument has a large gap; it excludes recovery for any fear experienced by an asbestosis sufferer who never gets cancer. To be compensable as pain and suffering, Norfolk further urges, a mental or emotional harm must have been "directly brought about by a physical injury." This argument elides over a key connection between Norfolk's conduct and the damages the asbestosis claimants allege as part of their pain and suffering: Once found liable for any bodily harm, a negligent
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