The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered an appeal of a products liability and wrongful death claim arising from alleged asbestos exposure in railroad equipment. The decedent worked in locomotive repair for decades and died of cancer years later. The defendants argued that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) preempted the plaintiffs’ state tort claims, and the trial court and appellate court agreed. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts in a 6-3 decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 132 S. Ct. 1261 (2012).
The decedent, George Corson, worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad for about twenty-seven years, from 1947 to 1974. His job as a welder and machinist involved locomotive brakeshoe installation and insulation stripping on locomotive boilers. He allegedly came into contact with asbestos during this time. He was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 2005.
Corson and his wife sued fifty-nine defendants, including Railroad Friction Products Corporation (RFPC) and Viad Corp in a Pennsylvania state court in 2007. The lawsuit alleged that RFCP distributed brakeshoes, that Viad was the successor-in-interest to a manufacturer and distributor of locomotives and locomotive engine parts, and that all the products in question contained asbestos. The plaintiffs asserted products liability causes of action for defective design and failure to warn. When Corson died, his executor, Gloria Kurns, joined as a plaintiff with Corson’s wife.