Law School Case Brief
Conrail v. Gottshall - 512 U.S. 532, 114 S. Ct. 2396 (1994)
While what constitutes negligence for the purposes of Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C.S. §§ 51-60, is a federal question, the Supreme Court of the United States makes clear that this federal question generally turns on principles of common law: FELA is founded on common-law concepts of negligence and injury, subject to such qualifications as Congress has imported into those terms. Those qualifications are the modification or abrogation of several common-law defenses to liability, including contributory negligence and assumption of risk. 45 U.S.C.S. §§ 51, 53-55. Only to the extent of these explicit statutory alterations is FELA an avowed departure from the rules of the common law. Thus, although common-law principles are not necessarily dispositive of questions arising under FELA, unless they are expressly rejected in the text of the statute, they are entitled to great weight in the Court's analysis. Because FELA is silent on the issue of negligent infliction of emotional distress, common-law principles must play a significant role in the Court's decision.
In separate suits against petitioner Conrail, their former employer, respondents Gottshall and Carlisle each asserted a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). In Gottshall, the District Court granted summary judgment to Conrail. In reversing and remanding for trial, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that claims for damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress are cognizable under FELA. However, the Third Circuit explicitly refused to adopt any of the recognized common-law tests in determining the proper scope of recovery for negligently inflicted emotional distress under FELA. The Third Circuit observed that most states limit recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress through the application of one or more common-law tests. According to the Third Circuit, the common law places harsh and arbitrary limits on recovery for emotional injury, while FELA has consistently been interpreted to accord liberal relief to railroad workers injured through the negligence of their employers. Conrail petitioned for review of the Third Circuit's decisions in Gottshall and Carlisle. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals concerning the threshold standard that must be met by plaintiffs bringing claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress under FELA. Conrail suggested that the Supreme Court adopt the common-law zone of danger test as delimiting the proper scope of an employer's duty under FELA to avoid subjecting its employees to negligently inflicted emotional injury.
In evaluating claims for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) against a railroad for negligent infliction of emotional distress, should federal courts apply the "zone of danger" test and consider relevant common-law principles?
The Supreme Court of the United States sought to determine the proper standard for evaluating claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). The Court found that the standard adopted by the Third Circuit was inconsistent with the principles embodied in the statute and with relevant common-law doctrine; accordingly, the Court reversed the judgments below. As an initial matter, the Court agreed with the Third Circuit that claims for damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress are cognizable under FELA. The Court held that, as part of its duty to use reasonable care in furnishing its employees with a safe place to work, a railroad has a duty under FELA to avoid subjecting its workers to negligently inflicted emotional injury.
The Court agreed with Conrail that the zone of danger test best reconciles the concerns of the common law with the principles underlying the Court's own well-established FELA jurisprudence. The zone of danger test limits recovery for emotional injury to those plaintiffs who sustain a physical impact as a result of a defendant's negligent conduct, or who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct. That is, those within the zone of danger of physical impact can recover for fright, and those outside of it cannot. The Court explained that because FELA is silent on the issue of negligent infliction of emotional distress, common-law principles must play a significant role in the Court's decision. The zone of danger test is also consistent with FELA's central focus on physical perils and remedial goals. By imposing liability, FELA presumably also was meant to encourage employers to improve safety measures in order to avoid those claims. It was reasonable to conclude that Congress intended the scope of the duty to avoid inflicting emotional distress under FELA to be coextensive with that established under the zone of danger test. The Court concluded that an emotional injury constitutes "injury" resulting from the employer's "negligence" for purposes of FELA only if it would be compensable under the terms of the zone of danger test.
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