The U.S. Supreme Court says that a Tennessee railroad worker isn’t entitled to the $5 million awarded him by a jury for being exposed to asbestos. The High Court ruled against Thurston Hensley, who sued CSX Corp. for monetary damages based in part on his fear of developing cancer in the future. The railroad contended that the jury instructions in the case were too favorable to the worker. The railroad wanted the jurors to be instructed that it was Hensley’s responsibility to show his cancer fears were “genuine and serious,” but that request was denied by the lower court. In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court sided with CSX, saying the trial judge erred in delivering the jury instructions. The Court’s opinion stated:
Although Plaintiffs can seek fear-of-cancer damages in some … cases, they must satisfy a high standard in order to obtain them.
The Plaintiff, former CSX Corp. railroad worker Thurston Hensley, suffered from brain damage and the lung disease asbestosis. At trial, Hensley’s lawyer sought pain and suffering damages that included fear of developing lung cancer. The trial judge refused to submit jury instructions proposed by CSX that would have required jurors to find the fear was “genuine and serious” and outlining standards of proof established in the Supreme Court decision, Norfolk & Western v. Ayers.
The Tennessee court said little would be served by issuing the proposed jury instruction because “the mere suggestion of the possibility of cancer has the potential to evoke raw emotions,” and “any juror who might be predisposed to grant a large award based on shaky evidence of a fear of cancer is unlikely to be swayed by the language of Ayers.”
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented from the ruling, saying the per curiam opinion was premised on a footnote in the Ayers case that he did not read as requiring the “genuine and serious” instruction. Justice Stevens suggested this ruling will raise more questions. In the dissent, he wrote:
For instance, if it is per se error for the trial court to deny a request for a genuine-and-serious instruction, is it also per se error to fail to employ particularized verdict forms? After all, that too is a verdict control device listed in footnote 19. The risk that the Court’s opinion will generate more confusion than clarity is inherent in a summary decisional process that does not give the parties an opportunity to brief and argue the merits.
It does appear that the majority of the Court has gone much farther in its requirements of proof than Congress intended. Hopefully, this issue will be revisited by the Court.
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