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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Supreme Court to Hear Case Regarding Whether or Not Federal Railroad Acts Preempt State-Based Tort Lawsuits

Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. At stake is the ability to hold railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety regulations that are more protective than federal safety standards.

The daughter of a deceased railroad worker is suing railroad parts manufacturers on behalf of her father who died as a result of contracting malignant mesolthelioma, the only generally accepted cause of which is asbestos exposure. Defendants admittedly manufactured products which contained asbestos and failed to provide specific product warnings which are required under state law. Federal railroad regulations are silent as to warnings for products containing asbestos. Defendants claim that federal railroad regulations control the entire field of regulation with regard to railroad parts manufacture and use, and therefore any state law which imposes additional requirements is preempted.

The District Court and Court of Appeals in the Third Circuit both granted defendants summary judgment on the theory of implied field preemption, holding that the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) is the controlling law in the field of railroad safety regulations and effectively preempts any product liability claims based in state law.

However, states have historically shared the responsibility for railroad regulation and the Federal Railway Safety Act, in fact, allows states to continue in force any regulation relating to railroad safety until a federal law is enacted which concerns the same issue. Here, the LIA is silent as to product warnings for those products containing asbestos. Therefore, the state regulation which relates to this issue should be enforceable.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower courts’ decision in favor of the defendants it will prevent injured citizens from holding railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety regulations, many of which speak to local safety hazards and provide more stringent protections which are not afforded by federal laws.

This case has the potential to be yet another example of the Corporate Court using federal preemption to protect corporate interests and prevent states from protecting public safety.

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