Recovery for emotional injury under the FELA

In certain circumstances, courts allow railroad employees to recover damages under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) when they suffer only a psychological or emotional injury (without any physical injury). The United States Supreme Court established a “zone of danger” test to identify those cases that are actionable. Under the zone of danger test, an employee may recover damages if the railroad’s negligence placed them in imminent threat of physical harm. The Supreme Court reasoned that “emotional injuries can be just as debilitating as physical injuries,” and that “a near miss may be as frightening as a direct hit.” Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Gottshall (1994), 512 U.S. 532.

I handled such a case for a track inspector in Pennsylvania. He was working in his truck on a section of track near his home terminal. He had just completed an inspection and was filling out paperwork. The dispatcher mistakenly sent a train down the siding on which the inspector was parked. He was startled by the train’s horn and saw the oncoming light of the locomotive in his rearview mirror. When he punched the accelerated in his truck, the rubber truck wheels spun on the metal rails. After another try, he was gradually able to get the vehicle moving. The train engaged its emergency brake when the engineer spotted the inspector’s truck, and luckily a collision was avoided.

After the incident, the inspector suffered a severe psychological injury, including post traumatic stress disorder. He had difficulty working around moving trains without anxiety and fear of getting hit. In an action for damages under the FELA, the court found that the dispatcher’s negligence in directing the train down an occupied track placed the inspector in imminent threat of physical harm under the zone of danger test, and allowed the case to go to trial.

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