March 3, 2012
Federal Locomotive Act Preempts State Law Claims Related to Asbestos Exposure
The Supreme Court ruled this week in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act preempted the petitioner's state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims arising out of harms from exposure to asbestos. The ruling reaffirms an 85-year-old case holding that the LIA's delegation to the ICC was a "general one" and that the LIA therefore occupied the field.
George Corson was a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier. After his retirement, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He and his wife sued the Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp in state court for design defect and failure to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos.
But the state law claims ran up against the LIA, which reads, in relevant part,
A railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts and appurtences--
(1) are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury;
(2) have been inspected as required under this chapter and regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation under this chapter; and
(3) can withstand every test prescribed by the Secretary under this chapter.
49 U.S.C. Sec. 20701.
Justice Thomas wrote for the Court that the LIA preempted the state law claims. Justice Thomas relied on the Court's ruling in 1926 in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. that the LIA occupies the field and thus, under field preemption, preempts state law claims like the petitioner's. The Court rejected the petitioner's attempt to work around Napier. (According to the Court, the petitioners didn't argue that Napier should be overruled. Instead, they tried to show that their claims didn't fall within Napier's field. The Court rejected this.)
Justice Kagan concurred, writing that she "doubt[s] this Court would decide [Napier] in the same way today."
Justice Sotomayor concurred and dissented, jointed by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, aruing that under Napier the LIA preempts the petitioner's design-defect claim, it does not preempt petitioner's failure-to-warn claims: "In my view, the latter escape pre-emption because they impose no state-law requirements in the field reserved for federal regulation: 'the equipment of locomotives.'" (Quoting Napier, 272 U.S. 605, 612.)
[Image: Train Wreck at Montparnasse, 1895, Wikimedia Commons]
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