June 01, 2009

Supreme Court Decides CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Hensley

On June 1, the Supreme Court decided CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Hensley, No. 08-1034.

The Supreme Court held in Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Ayers, 538 U.S. 135 (2003), that the plaintiff in a case under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) can recover damages based on his fear of developing cancer, but only if he can "prove that his alleged fear is genuine and serious." When Thurston Hensley's FELA claims against CSX Transportation went to the jury, CSX therefore asked for an instruction that Hensley had to prove that his fear of cancer was "genuine and serious" in order to recover damages. But the Tennessee trial court declined to give the instruction, and the jury returned a $5 million verdict for Hensley. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, holding that Ayers "did not discuss or authorize jury instructions on this issue, but merely ruled on substantive law" and that there was no point in instructing the jury that a plaintiff's fear of cancer had to be "genuine and serious" in order to justify an award of fear-of-cancer damages because any juror who "might be predisposed to grant a large award based on shaky evidence of a fear of cancer" probably would not be swayed by an instruction setting out the requirements for recovery anyway.

The Supreme Court summarily reversed the judgment in a per curiam opinion, holding that it was "clear error" for the state court to refuse to instruct on the standard for recovering fear-of-cancer damages under FELA. The Court quickly rejected the lower court's reasoning that instructing the jury on the standard for fear-of-cancer damages would have been a waste of time because jurors have such strong emotions about cancer, concluding that this "is a serious misunderstanding of the nature and function of the jury." The Court observed that juries routinely find facts in sensitive, even life-and-death, matters, and that "[i]n those cases, as in all cases, juries are presumed to follow the court's instructions." And the fact that cancer evokes strong emotions is all the more reason to instruct the jury on the proper legal standard for recovering fear-of-cancer damages.

Justices Stevens and Ginsburg dissented from the per curiam opinion of the Court.

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