The Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. Photo: njene/Shutterstock.com

A New Jersey appeals court has reinstated a railroad worker’s claim for benefits from a job-site incident that allegedly caused emotional distress but no physical injuries.

The Federal Employers Liability Act compensates railroad workers for physical injuries, or for emotional distress claims that meet the “zone of danger” test. That test allows claims under the Federal Employees Liability Act by people who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by a defendant’s conduct, but escape physical injury.

Judge Joseph Isabella of Hudson County Superior Court dismissed the case, M.M. v. Port Authority Trans-Hudson, finding the plaintiff’s case did not pass the zone-of-danger test. On appeal, Judges Gary Rothstadt, Robert Gilson and Arnold Natali Jr. ruled the plaintiff did satisfy the test.

The plaintiff, identified as M.M., was a signal designer for Port Authority Trans Hudson Corp. who was exposed to diesel and exhaust fumes from trucks while working in a railroad tunnel in December 2012. She fainted and fell to the floor, but was taken to a hospital and given a CT scan that found she had no injuries or medical issues. M.M. later saw her psychiatrist, who was treating her for symptoms related to bipolar disorder, and he diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and opined that it was a consequence of the tunnel incident.

For several months after the incident, she had twice-per-week visits with her psychologist, who opined that she was “functioning at a very high level” before the incident. The psychologist deemed M.M. unable to return to work after the incident based on “a lack of trust for anyone outside of her family, which was brought on by her significant difficulty at PATH and the inconsistency at which the administration treated her.”

She returned to work nearly a year after the accident, and was placed on “desk duty” and directed that she should not work in any train tunnels or on train tracks. After a few days back, she left her job in November 2013 and did not return.

M.M. filed a suit against PATH for emotional distress damages under FELA. The agency moved for summary judgment while discovery was still underway. In August 2017, Isabella granted summary judgment, finding the present case similar to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Metro-North Commuter Railroad v. Buckley. In that case, the court held that emotional distress damages could not be recovered under FELA by a worker who was disease-free but had been exposed to asbestos. Isabella reasoned that if asbestos is not within the zone of danger, then diesel fumes and carbon monoxide are not either, the appeals court said.

On appeal, M.M. argued that the facts of her case were different from those of Buckley. She argued that she satisfied the two prongs of the zone-of-danger test. First, she suffered a physical impact when she was exposed to the diesel fumes and fainted, and second, that working in the train tunnels with diesel fumes put her at immediate risk of physical harm.

The parties disagreed about whether the fumes caused M.M. to faint, but the plaintiff presented a report from toxicologist Donald Fox, who concluded her exposure to the fumes caused her to faint.

“Dr. Fox’s report combined with plaintiff’s testimony from her deposition creates a factual dispute as to whether the diesel fumes caused plaintiff to faint. Accordingly, resolving this dispute is a matter for the jury,” the appeals court said in an unsigned opinion.

The panel also said Isabella wrongly equated the present case to Buckley. In Buckley, the plaintiff suffered no symptoms from his exposure to asbestos, and his emotional injury was based on his fear of contracting an illness in the future. In the present case, the plaintiff asserts that she suffered an immediate symptom: fainting after exposure to the fumes. In addition, she argues that her PTSD developed directly after, and as a result of, the incident.

“Plaintiff’s stand-alone claim for emotional distress satisfies the zone-of-danger test because she suffered a physical impact when she was exposed to diesel fumes that caused her to faint. Accordingly, defendant was not entitled to summary judgment on this issue,” the panel wrote.

Patrick Finn, a Mount Laurel attorney who represented M.M., said the ruling “does bolster the outstanding Supreme Court decisions on the issue,” and added that “the trial court misapplied the established law.”

The Port Authority was represented by Lauren Grodentzik of the agency’s Law Department. A Port Authority spokesman, Steve Coleman, said the agency would not comment on the case.