Emotional Distress Claims in Environmental Torts: Does the “Zone of Danger” Rule Allow Recovery for Fear of Future Injury?

Posted on April 26, 2016 by H. Thomas Wells Jr.

Two legal rules frequently come into play in environmental tort cases that are difficult to reconcile: the rule allowing recovery for emotional distress damages without physical injury if someone is found to be in the “zone of danger,” and the rule not allowing recovery for mere fear of a future injury.

Normally, recovery for emotional distress (sometimes called mental anguish) requires the plaintiff to suffer some actual physical injury, however slight.  But one exception allows someone who is in the “zone of danger” to recover despite the lack of any physical injury. Usually, the danger must be an immediate physical injury. For example, one case allowed recovery for emotional distress under a “zone of danger” theory for the driver at whom a gun was pointed, but not for the passenger in the same car. Another case allowed recovery to someone who had to escape his burning home, and then watched it burn to the ground, but not for someone who merely saw his house burning when he returned from work. Yet another case allowed recovery for floodwaters entering a home because the floodwaters were infested with snakes.  Presumably, without the snakes, there could have been no recovery for emotional distress for the flood.

How does this “zone of danger” rule square with claims in environmental tort cases?  Many courts do not allow recovery for a mere fear of an injury in the future, or so-called “cancerphobia” cases.  Despite this rule, can one recover for emotional distress in, for example, an air pollution case, arguing that the plaintiff is in the “zone of danger” despite no present physical injury?

Plaintiffs in environmental tort cases, such as flooding, air pollution, and others, have indeed been asserting “zone of danger” theories to avoid the physical injury rule, and are asking juries to award them emotional distress or mental anguish damages.  These claims must walk a fine line, since most courts do not allow recovery for mere fear of future injury. Where is that line drawn in an environmental tort case? For example, since presumably any amount of air pollution is bad for one’s lungs, is mere exposure to air pollution enough to recover for mental anguish for worrying about one’s self or one’s children?  Or is this argument simply an end run around the ban on recovery for fear of future injury?  Courts will have to draw lines in these environmental tort cases, and the lines they draw may not all be bright or easy to see.



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