Court rules workers can collect damages for fear of illness

The US Supreme Court has found that the mental anguish resulting from the fear of developing cancer can be sufficient cause for granting an already-ill worker compensatory damages.

In a 5-to-4 ruling Monday, the high court ruled in favor of six retired railway workers diagnosed with asbestosis, who stated that the emotional stress from their fear of asbestos-related cancer should be factored into their financial award. The workers' $5.8 million jury award was challenged by Norfolk Southern Railway.

"We hold that a railroad worker suffering from asbestosis can recover for the heightened anxiety he experiences because of his vulnerability to a more dread disease," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.

Justice Ginsburg said the trial judge correctly interpreted the Federal Employers' Liability Act when he told the jury that an asbestos claimant, upon demonstrating a reasonable fear of cancer stemming from his present disease, could be compensated for his fears as part of the pain and suffering damages.

The ruling deals yet another blow to industries that manufacture and use asbestos. Already, more than $54 billion has been paid in asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits, forcing more than 60 US companies into bankruptcy.

Aside from weighing the effect on industry, the justices also had to consider the rights of workers subjected to unhealthy conditions on the job.

In addition, the ruling "will have significant practical effect on the state courts," even though most asbestos litigation occurs outside this federal statute, says Richard Lazarus, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the case for the six workers.

The court's ruling could influence the thinking in state courts anyway, he says.

Ginsburg noted, in summarizing her ruling from the bench, that the worker still has the burden to prove that the fear was genuine and serious.

In a second question in the case, the justices ruled unanimously that a worker can recover the entire damages from a railroad whose negligence jointly caused an injury. It would then be up to the railroad to seek contributions from others who potentially may have caused the injury.

Staff writer Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report, which also used material from wire services.

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