Supreme Court Rules State Railroad Product Liability Claims Preempted by Federal Law – Kurns et al. v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. et al.

By March 8, 2012 Product Liability

As a Missouri product liability attorney, I was interested to see a rare Supreme Court ruling in a product liability case. This case has to do with asbestos exposure, which means very high dollar amounts and serious injuries are at stake. In Kurns et al. v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. et al., George Corson and his wife sued RFPC and Viad Corp., makers of locomotive parts they claimed had exposed Corson to asbestos during his career as a welder and machinist for a railroad. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma (an aggressive form of cancer) after retirement, which is typical for mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding the lawsuit was preempted by the federal Locomotive Inspection Act. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and in this decision, so did the U.S. Supreme Court.
Corson worked in locomotive repair facilities for one railroad from 1947 until 1974. In 2005, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. His 2007 lawsuit alleged that RFPC and Viad, as a successor in interest, manufactured railroad parts with asbestos that were defectively designed and failed to warn that asbestos can cause mesothelioma or provide safety instructions. He died during the pendency of the suit, and the executor of his estate, Gloria Kurns, was substituted. The defendants removed the case to federal court, where they moved for summary judgment because the state product liability claims were preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act. That 1915 law says a railroad may use a locomotive and its parts only when they are in proper condition, safe, have been federally inspected and can pass federal tests. The district court found that the LIA preempted and the Third Circuit agreed.
In a decision that relied heavily on its own past decision in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., the Supreme Court upheld both lower courts. That case, now 85 years old, found that states could not enact laws that required certain devices on locomotives, despite the states’ claims that their laws intended to regulate workplace toxic exposure rather than accidental injuries. The Supreme Court found that the LIA preempted the entire “field” of locomotive equipment regulation. Kurns argued first that the field in question had been narrowed by the 1970 enactment of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which permitted states to keep their railroad laws until the Transportation Secretary regulates the same subject. But the high court noted that the FRSA left existing laws intact and merely allowed the Secretary to make new ones. It then dismissed claims that the relief Kurns sought was outside the LIA’s field. Notably, the court rejected a claim that state common-law claims are outside the field, finding that Napier did not admit any exceptions to its field preemption.
As a southern Illinois product defect lawyer, I am disappointed to see yet another federal preemption case. This opinion has one concurrence and one partial concurrence, so it’s clear that judges across a spectrum of political thought and federal court levels agree that Napier applies. However, the result does nothing to protect railroad workers from harm, the undisputed goal of the LIA. That law is now nearly 100 years old, and was enacted before science fully understood the relationship between asbestos exposure and illness later in life. Justice Kagan, concurring, made an excellent point when she wrote that regardless of state-law authority to hold railroad parts manufacturers liable, the federal Department of Transportation is free to make rules requiring that equipment be used only with proper warnings. As a St. Louis dangerous product attorney, I would prefer that regulators take this kind of action to protect workers.


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