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New Jersey rail employee case may have California implications

A New Jersey rail worker’s claim for benefits has been reinstated by an appeals court, allowing the case to proceed. The result may have implications for California rail workers.

At issue is a rail employee who fainted from overexposure to diesel and exhaust fumes from trucks while working in a rail tunnel in 2012. The worker was taken to a hospital where no physical damage was found.

The worker, a signal designer for Port Authority Trans Hudson Corp. identified as M.M., was placed under a psychiatrist’s care and returned to work one year after the incident, but quit several days later and then sued for emotional distress claiming she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

FELA requirement for emotional distress

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) covers railroad workers for emotional distress if the claim meets the “zone of danger” test – if the worker was placed in immediate risk of physical harm by the railroad or another defendant but escaped physical injury.

A New Jersey judge initially issued summary judgement, ruling ruled that M.M.’s case did not meet the “zone of danger” test. The judge cited a previous ruling that found a worker who was exposed to asbestos but was free of disease did not meet the test. If asbestos exposure didn’t meet the test, the judge reasoned, then diesel fumes wouldn’t meet the test either.

On appeal, M.M.’s legal team argued that, among other issues, the two cases were separate because in the asbestos case, the plaintiff sued because of his fear of contracting an illness in the future but M.M. had sustained an immediate symptom by fainting. M.M.’s PTSD developed after and as a result of fainting from the fumes.

M.M. suffered a physical impact from fumes

The appeals court agreed, saying that the case should be heard because M.M. did suffer physical impact which led to emotional distress.

FELA is the federal law that protects railroad workers and sets de-facto safety standards across the nation. The law has been in place since 1908 and provides both employees and companies with a uniform liability standard. Rulings in one state can apply to rail workers in any state across the nation.

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