A leading U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has clarified when rail workers can recover damages for outrageous conduct by their employer railroad. Building on two cases that I handled (Metro North Railroad v. Buckley in the U.S. Supreme Court and Higgins v. Metro North Railroad in the Second Circuit), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has declared that a worker can recover for a purely emotional injury (involving no physical impact) only if he or she was within a “zone of danger of physical impact.”

Goodrich v. LIRR involved an electrician who sought to recover under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) for his emotional distress after a fellow worker intentionally posted his HIV positive status on a company bulletin board. The Circuit Court ruled that under the FELA the electrician could not recover because there was no physical impact or threat of physical impact involved. So no matter how outrageous the conduct, unless there is some physical impact or imminent threat of serious physical impact, under the FELA a railroad worker has no recovery for emotional distress.

But that is not the case if the worker is protected by the Federal Rail Safety Act. Under the FRSA, physical impact is not necessary for the recovery of emotional distress damages, and a worker can recover for any emotional distress resulting from a railroad’s violation of his FRSA rights. And punitive damages up to $250,000 also are recoverable under the FRSA for outrageous conduct by the railroad.

So, even if a worker has no claim under the FELA for emotional distress, he still may be able to recover emotional distress damages under the FRSA.