Supreme Court Narrows Conditions for Asbestos Suits Under State Laws

NU Online News Service, Feb. 29, 4:00 p.m. EST

The Supreme Court today narrowed the grounds under which victims of damages from asbestos exposure can sue under state laws.

In Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., No. 10-879, the court held 6-3 that state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims fall within the field of locomotive-equipment regulation pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA).

The case involved George Corson, who worked as a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier. After retirement, Corson was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He and his wife sued Friction Products Corp. and Viad Corp. 

The Corsons sued in Pennsylvania state court, claiming injury from Corson’s exposure to asbestos in locomotives and locomotive parts distributed by respondents.

They alleged state-law claims of defective design and failure to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos

The case was removed to federal court, which granted summary judgment.

The critical issue is that states say that their regulations are intended to protect railroad workers from sickness and disease, whereas “the federal regulation endeavors solely to prevent accidental injury in the operation of trains.”

In a decision by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court upheld a 1926 decision, the Napier case, which cited a provision of the Locomotive Inspection Act as covering “the entire locomotive and tender and all parts and appurtenances thereof.”

The court acted even though the U.S. government filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs. Additionally, an assistant solicitor general argued that failure-to-warn claims are not subject to field preemption because they arise from injuries incurred during the repair, rather than use, of the locomotives.

In his decision, Thomas writes, “The pre-empted field as defined by Napier plainly encompasses the claims at issue here.

“Petitioners’ common-law claims for defective design and failure to warn are aimed at the equipment of locomotives.

“Because those claims ‘are directed to the same subject’ as the LIA, Napier dictates that they fall within the preempted field,” Thomas writes.

The American Association for Justice, which represents plaintiff’s lawyers, said in amicus brief said that because the “right to legal remedy for wrongful injury is a fundamental right under the Constitution, courts may not preempt such a cause of action and leave injured persons without remedy unless Congress specifically intended” that result.

In addition, the AAJ also argued that at the time in 1915 when Congress enacted the LIA, “the common law did not permit workers who were not in privity of contract with equipment manufacturers to recover from manufacturers for injury caused by unsafe products.

“It would have been impossible for Congress to have intended to preempt a cause of action which did not exist.”

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