New Jersey Appellate Division Affirms Dismissal of Claims for Emotional Injuries Under FELA

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51 to 60 (“FELA”), generally confers liability upon railroad common carriers “to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier … for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier, or by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment.” 45 U.S.C. § 51.

FELA was at issue in a recent appeal decided by our Appellate Division in Barella v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Docket No. A-0761-15T1 (App. Div. Jan. 5, 2017). Plaintiff Gary Barella was employed by New Jersey Transit Rail Operations (“NJ Transit”) as a foreman who worked on the service track in Hoboken, New Jersey. Id., Slip. Op. at 2. Mr. Barella was supervised by a general foreman who, according to Mr. Barella, walked into his office one day and began yelling at him very loudly and with profanity for fifteen to twenty minutes. Id., Slip. Op. at 2-3. This “loud harangue” allegedly caused Mr. Barella to collapse into a chair and experience chest pains – he was immediately taken by ambulance to a local hospital and diagnosed with anxiety, depression and stress. Id., Slip. Op. at 3. Mr. Barella eventually brought suit against NJ Transit under FELA for these “emotional injuries”.

Unlike New Jersey’s Workman’s Compensation Act, FELA is a fault-based statute which means that a plaintiff such as Mr. Barella must prove the “traditional common law elements of negligence: duty, breach, foreseeability, and causation” to successfully pursue a claim under FELA. Stevens v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, 356 N.J. Super. 311, 319 (App. Div. 2003). However, what ultimately proved fatal to Mr. Barella’s claim is that in order to prevail for strictly emotional distress injuries, a plaintiff has an additional burden: a “zone of danger” requirement. “[T]he zone of danger test limits recovery for emotional injury to those plaintiffs who sustain a physical impact as a result of [an FELA] defendant’s negligent conduct, or who are placed in immediate risk of harm by that conduct.” Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottschall, 512 U.S. 532, 547-48 (1994). The trial court, which the Appellate Division ultimately affirmed, determined that on the record before it, Mr. Barella had failed to prove that the general foreman either inflicted physical injury himself or that Mr. Barella was in the “zone of danger” as defined by the United States Supreme Court. Barella, Slip Op. at 4-5.

Although Mr. Barella’s claims were ultimately unsuccessful, if you believe you have a viable claim for physical or emotional injuries under FELA, immediately contact the attorneys at The Sattiraju & Tharney, LLP in Princeton, New Jersey at (609) 722-7039 for a free consultation. We fight for workers’ justice under a litany of employee-rights statutes including FELA.