March 1, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Federal Pre-emption Of State Law
February 29 was the day that only occurs every four years, being leap year. The question that presented itself is how many Supreme Court opinions were ever issued on February 29? The answer is 11, including the opinion delivered Wednesday. That case is Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. (10-879). Kurns is the executrix of the estate of George Corson. He worked as a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma after he retired and sued Railroad Friction Products and others in state court claiming defective design and failure to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos. The case was removed from state court to federal court where summary judgment was granted to defendants on the basis that the state law claims were pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA). The Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court also affirmed.
The Court reasoned that earlier precedent in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926) applies. That case held that carriers can only operate locomotives in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury and the equipment inspected as required under the LIA and can withstand tests under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation. The Court reads the LIA as pre-empting state law in this context as the federal and state laws are both directed to the equipment of locomotives.
The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FSRA) does not alter the LIA’s scope as that Act left previous federal laws and regulations intact. The Court rejected arguments that the repair of locomotives fell outside the LIA as Congress intended it to occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment. The Court rejected the alternative argument that the failure to warn claims are not pre-empted due to liability being based on the failure to provide adequate warnings regarding the products risk. Corson suffered his injury due to exposure to asbestos in locomotives, thus pre-empted by the LIA. Other arguments fell under the statement that all locomotive issues fall under the LIA.
The opinion was written by Justice Thomas who tends to live in his own version of legal reality. Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer. She disagrees on the failure to warn claim:
The majority further conflates defective-design and failure-to-warn claims by noting that each is “directed at” locomotive equipment. Ante, at 9. That is insufficient. Not every state law that “could be said to affect tangentially” matters within the regulated field is pre-empted. English v. General Elec. Co., 496 U. S. 72, 85 (1990). Rather, “for a state law to fall within the pre-empted zone, it must have some direct and substantial effect” on the primary conduct of entities subject to federal regulation. Ibid. As explained above, the LIA regulates the physical equipment of locomotives. But petitioners’ failure-to-warn claims, if successful, would have no necessary effect on the physical equipment of locomotives at all, as respondents themselves acknowledge.
Then again, he convinced six other Justices on his position. [MG]