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Whether a plaintiff can recover mental anguish damages without physical injury depends on both the nature of the duty breached and the quality of proof offered by the plaintiff. For many breaches of legal duties, even tortious ones, the law affords no right to recover for resulting mental anguish.
Martin Reeves Carter Sr. and Larry Wilson sued Temple-Inland Forest Products Corporation for actual and punitive damages, based on their exposure to asbestos while working at one of Temple-Inland’s mills. Carter and Wilson did not have an asbestos-related disease, and were seeking actual damages for mental anguish. The trial court granted Temple-Inland’s motion for summary judgment, but the lower appellate court reversed the summary judgment as to plaintiff's claims for actual damages. Carter and Wilson sought review, and the court reversed. Carter and Wilson had argued that they were entitled to recover on their claims, which were based on their fear of the possibility of developing an asbestos-related disease in the future, as long as their fear was reasonable.
May a person who has been exposed to asbestos but does not have an asbestos-related disease recover damages for fear of the possibility of developing such a disease in the future?
The court held that absent physical injury, the common law did not allow recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress except in certain specific, limited instances; and that Carter and Wilson’s claims did not fall within any of the categories in which recovery had been allowed. Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Temple-Inland, regarding actual, as well, as punitive damages; and held that Carter and Wilson could not recover on their claims.