TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Widener Commonwealth Law School

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Preemption Case Seeking Cert.

A ways back, I noted a case in which state tort litigation arising out of a train crash (and accompanying spill) was held (by my judge, incidentally) preempted by state law.  Twenty states have now filed an amicus brief [PDF] supporting the grant of certiorari.  The press release doesn't exactly focus on preemption-related issues:

“This case has enormous implications for people injured by the negligent acts of railroads,” said [North Dakota Attorney General] Stenehjem in the press release. “These people, some of whom suffered devastating and life-threatening chemical burns from the derailment, deserve to have their day in court.

“This case illustrates what happens when lawyers get caught up in arguing legal technicalities — and forget about doing justice and addressing real-world injuries. State courts have a long history with these kinds of cases. Five years after the derailment, the argument is still over jurisdiction, not substance, with no end in sight. We are filing this brief to ask the Supreme Court to hear this case to ensure that state-law claims are heard in state courts and not subject to prolonged fights over jurisdiction and pre-emption that the victims of the Minot derailment have suffered in this case.”

The brief is substantially more focused on the issues at stake -- the proper placement of the line between complete preemption and substantive preemption, and how the well-pleaded complaint rule plays into it.  Essentially, the defendants contended that the lawsuit could be removed under  complete preemption removal jurisdiction, while the plaintiffs argued that their allegations avoided that doctrine's applicability and that the FRSA does not completely preempt state law claims like those alleged here.

Given the substantial increase in preemption claims (and assertions by regulatory agencies) in the past several years, it could be an important case if cert. is granted.

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