Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall

PETITIONER: Consolidated Rail Corporation
RESPONDENT: Gottshall
LOCATION: Landfill

DOCKET NO.: 92-1956
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 512 US 532 (1994)
ARGUED: Feb 28, 1994
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1994

ADVOCATES:
J. Michael Farrell - on behalf of the Respondent Carlisle
Ralph G. Wellington - on behalf of the Petitioner
William L. Myers, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent Gottshall

Facts of the case

Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) employee James Gottshall observed a fellow worker, Richard Johns, die of a heart attack while on duty. Gottshall's boss postponed seeking medical assistance during Johns' heart attack, insisted that the crew keep working, and left the body at the work site for the remainder of the work day. Shortly after Johns's death, Gottshall was admitted to a psychiatric institution. Gottshall sued Conrail under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) for exposing him to distressing circumstances which he claimed caused his illness. A District Court rejected the suit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and found that Gottshall's injuries were "genuine and severe." The Third Circuit contrasted the liberal injury recovery policy embodied in FELA over the more limited injury relief recovery policy embodied in common law standards, which often applied harsh tests to prove employee injury.

Conrail employee Alan Carlisle also filed a FELA action against Conrail. He claimed that Conrail subjected him to unsafe working conditions, which caused him stress and lead to health problems. Because the stress related health problems were foreseeable to Conrail, the Third Circuit affirmed the judgment for Carlisle.

Question

Under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), does "emotional stress" resulting from employer "negligence" constitute an "injury" for which an employee can hold his employer liable?

Media for Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 1994 in Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 24, 1994 in Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

The first decision that I have to announce is No. 92-1956, Consolidated Rail Corporation versus Gottshall which comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

I have this along with a companion case that the Circuit also ruled on, Consolidated Rail Corporation versus Carlisle.

Respondents, James Gottshall and Alan Carlisle, each sued their former employer, petitioner Conrail for negligent infliction of emotional distress under the Federal Employers' Liability Act or FELA.

That is a statue that provides remedies to railroad workers injured through the negligence of their employer.

In Gottshall's case which stemmed from an incident in which Gottshall witnessed a close friend under rather strain circumstances and co-worker die of a heart attack.

The District Court granted summary judgment to Conrail.

The Third Circuit reversed.

The court noted that State Courts have developed several tests in order to limit recovery for emotional injury, but reasoned that these common law tests must be disregarded when they bar recovery of valid FELA claims.

The court held that a suit for negligent infliction of emotional distress under FELA must alleged facts sufficient to assure the genuiness of a claim as well as the usual tort elements including foreseeability.

Satisfied that Gottshall's claims had met these threshold burdens, the court remanded for trial.

Carlisle sued Conrail for emotional injury from work-related stress.

The jury awarded him nearly $400,000 in damages.

The Third Circuit affirmed concluding that Carlisle had produced sufficient evidence that his stress-related injuries were genuine and had been foreseeable to Conrail.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the judgments below.

We agree with the Third Circuit that employers have a duty under FELA to avoid negligently inflict emotional distress upon their employees, but we reject the lower court's definition of the scope of that duty.

The Third Circuit disregarded the common law's treatment of the right of recovery pursued by respondents and created a standard that would in effect, make railroads, the insurers of the emotional well-beings of their employees.

Our case has established, however, that FELA is not an insurance statute but a negligent statute and what constitutes negligence for the purposes of FELA cannot be ascertained without reference to common law principles.

We adapt the common law zone of danger test for evaluating claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress brought under FELA.

This test best reconciles without FELA jurisprudence, the concerns underlying the common law restrictions on emotional injury claims the potential for a flood of trivial or fraudulent suits and the possibility of unpredictable and unlimited liability for defendants.

Under this test, a railroad worker within the zone of danger of physical impact due to his employer's negligence will be able to recover for emotional injury caused by fear of physical injury to himself.

The zone of danger test had been adapted by a significant number of states at the time FELA was enacted in 1908, and it currently is followed in 14 jurisdictions.

It, therefore, is a well-established common law principle suitable for delimiting the duty of railroads to avoid inflicting emotional injuries upon their workers.

We remand Gottshall's case to the Third Circuit for reconsideration in light of the zone of danger test announced today.

In Carlisle's case, however, we remand with instructions to enter judgment for Conrail.

Claims arising from work-related stress are not compensable under the common law zone of danger test nor are they cognizable under FELA.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackmun and Justice Stevens have joined.