The Supreme Court Tuesday agreed to review whether rail workers can receive compensation under a rail liability law for purely emotional injuries arising

from working conditions.

In agreeing to hear the case, at the urging of Consolidated Rail Corp., the high court will try to settle a conflict among lower courts on the circumstances that permit such recoveries under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the personal injury compensation law that covers rail workers.The emotional distress issue is a relatively new area of litigation involving hundreds of cases and one that courts have had trouble handling, according to a transportation attorney.

The high court last week let stand a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that purely emotional injuries are not compensable under maritime law without an accompanying significant physical injury.

In Conrail vs. Gottshall, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia erred in holding that the act permits suits for the "negligent infliction of emotional distress" without a related physical impact or injury, or solely from general working conditions, Conrail said.

The appeals court said that if a claimant shows his injuries are genuine and serious, a genuine issue for the jury to decide is created. Other circuits have taken similar stances but some have not decided whether there is a physical injury requirement and some have ruled a related physical injury is needed.

The Philadelphia court "adopted an expansive scheme of recovery for the negligent infliction of emotional distress that is virtually unprecedented both under common law and under FELA," Conrail attorneys argued.

"This is an important issue; there are a lot of cases and a lot of struggle to find a consistent approach to FELA," said Ralph G. Wellington, a Conrail attorney.

He said the Supreme Court likely will hear oral argument in the case during the winter or in early spring.

In August 1988, James Gottshall was part of a work gang replacing track in a remote Northeast area. A co-worker and friend, Richard Johns, suffered a heart attack and collapsed. Mr. Gottshall tried to resuscitate Mr. Johns, who died before the paramedics arrived.

Mr. Gottshall suffered a breakdown and was eventually diagnosed as having major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He sued Conrail under the act - alleging negligent management decisions for forcing the work gang to work in the midst of a heat wave, failure to provide adequate scheduled work breaks, canceling a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and scheduling work in a remote job location.

The district court ruled in favor of Conrail, arguing that the complaint did not support a suit for negligent infliction of emotional distress under any accepted common law theory.

But the court of appeals reversed, leading to Conrail's request for Supreme Court review.

Conrail said that appellate ruling opens the door for "innumerable claims. Every railroad laborer who works under difficult, stressful conditions arguably may state a claim under FELA."

In other action, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that CSX Transportation Inc. was not liable for damages under the act in a case where a worker was injured at a grade crossing while working for the Southern Weighing & Inspection Bureau, an association of railroads that includes CSX.