LOCATION: City Hall
DOCKET NO.: 96-320
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
CITATION: 521 US 424 (1997)
ARGUED: Feb 18, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 23, 1997
Charles C. Goetsch - Argued the cause for the respondent
Sheila L. Birnbaum - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
Michael Buckley was exposed to insulation dust containing asbestos while employed as a pipefitter by Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co. Buckley feared he would develop cancer, of which periodic medical check ups have revealed no evidence of an 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." He sought damages for negligently inflicted emotional distress and to cover the cost of future check ups. The District Court dismissed Buckley's case because since there had been no "physical impact" from his exposure, the FELA did not permit recovery for his emotional injury. Buckley's medical monitoring claim was not discussed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that that his contact with the insulation dust was considered a physical impact that, when present, permits a FELA plaintiff to recover for accompanying emotional distress. Furthermore, Buckley could recover the costs of check ups made necessary by the exposure.
May railroad workers invoke the Federal Employers' Liability Act to sue their employers for emotional distress due to asbestos, or some other disease-causing carcinogen, exposure if it has not made them ill?
Media for Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company v. BuckleyAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 18, 1997 in Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company v. Buckley
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 1997 in Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company v. Buckley
The second case is Metro North versus Buckley.
The plaintiff in this case was negligently exposed to large amounts of asbestos 10 years ago.
So far he has shown no physical symptom of any sort, but experts testified that he has a 1% to 5% greater chance of getting cancer than the average person.
The first question before us is whether a worker negligently exposed to asbestos, may recover in tort under the Federal Employees Liability Act for emotional suffering even thought the worker has not shown any symptom or any sign of the disease.
We hold that a plaintiff without symptoms may not recover for purely emotional suffering.
Our conclusion rests upon past precedent in this Court, the absence of precedent permitting recovery in state court tort cases and certain practical reasons such as, for example, the vast number of difficult to evaluate cases that a contrary ruling might produce carrying with it the risk in a world of limited resources of interfering with recovery by those who suffer more serious harm.
The second question is whether a plaintiff who never develops either any physical change, no symptom, no disease, can recover the cost of medical monitoring.
There are some state court cases that have permitted actions of approximately this sort.
Those cases, however, have directly or indirectly endorsed special modifications of the traditional tort action as applied here, such as, for example, that the money be placed in a special fund to assure it's being spent on medical care rather than treating it simply as, say, extra recovery for examinations paid for from other sources.
We do not deny the problem of the individual plaintiff before us, but we are mindful of the systemic effects of a rule of law that would not only affect his case, but the cases of millions of others, some of whom have far more serious injuries.
We conclude that the FELA does not contain an unqualified traditional tort remedy for lump sum damages.
We express no view about the extent to which the FELA might or might not accommodate more finely tailored medical cost recovery rules.
For these and other reasons, we reverse the judgment of the Second Circuit and we remand the case.
Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in part, and dissenting in part, in which Justice Stevens joins.