On February 29, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., using preemption doctrine to allow the corporate defendants to escape liability for a railroad worker’s death likely caused by his exposure to asbestos from defendants’ products. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, affirmed the Third Circuit’s holding that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) preempts plaintiffs’ state tort law claims for design defects and failure to warn.
In this case, railroad parts manufacturers were sued by the widow and estate executor of a railroad worker who died as a result of contracting malignant mesolthelioma, the only generally accepted cause of which is asbestos exposure. Defendants admittedly manufactured products that contained asbestos and failed to provide specific product warnings required under state law. Federal railroad regulations are silent as to warnings for products containing asbestos. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court was persuaded by defendants’ claim that the LIA controls the entire field of regulation of railroad parts manufacture and use, and therefore found the state tort claims to be preempted. The Court based its decision on the 1926 case of Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., which held that the LIA occupied the field for “the design, the construction and the material of every part of the locomotive.”
Justice Kagan wrote a concurring opinion, noting her belief that the Court would not have decided Napier the same way today, given the trends in modern preemption doctrine, but that “Napier governs so long as Congress lets it.” Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Sotomayor agreed that the defective design claims were preempted by the LIA, but opined that the failure to warn claims, insofar as they have nothing to do with the physical composition of the railroad parts, should not be considered preempted under Napier. She concluded, “[T]he majority affords the LIA field-pre-emptive effect well beyond what Napier requires, leaving petitioners without a remedy for what they allege was fatal exposure to asbestos in repair facilities.” With a quote from the famous Silkwood plutonium exposure case, Sotomayor noted, “It is difficult to believe that Congress would, without comment, remove all means of judicial recourse for those injured by illegal conduct.”
By upholding the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the corporate defendants, the Supreme Court is preventing injured citizens from holding railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety laws and regulations, many of which speak to local safety hazards and provide more stringent protections than those afforded by federal laws.