The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the mental anguish resulting from the fear of developing cancer can be sufficient cause for granting an already-ill worker compensatory damages.

A divided court ruled that ill railroad workers can recover damages for fear of developing asbestos-related cancer, in a decision arising from the nation's multibillion-dollar asbestos litigation crisis.

"We hold that a railroad worker suffering from asbestosis can recover for the heightened anxiety he experiences because of his vulnerability to a more dread disease," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said for the majority in interpreting the Federal Employers' Liability Act, a 1908 law still in force.

She said workers suffering from asbestosis, a chronic disease caused by prolonged exposure to the toxic substance, still must prove the asserted cancer fear was genuine and serious.

The 5-4 decision was a defeat for Norfolk Southern Corp., which challenged a $5.8 million jury award in West Virginia to six retired railway workers with asbestosis, a potentially deadly lung disease.

More broadly, the ruling deals yet another blow to industries that manufacture and use asbestos. Already, more than $54 billion has been paid in asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits, forcing more than 60 U.S. companies into bankruptcy.

The six workers in their lawsuit claimed the railroad failed to provide them with a reasonably safe workplace because of their exposure to asbestos, which can cause cancer. They sought damages for emotional stress.

"There is an undisputed relationship between exposure to asbestos sufficient to cause asbestosis, and asbestos-related cancer," she said, rejecting the company's arguments that the alleged fears were too remote to be included in the damages.