Articles Posted in Federal Legislation

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.

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The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently entered judgments in several lawsuits against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS). The plaintiffs were victims of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in which the government of Iran and the MOIS were implicated. The lawsuits were brought under an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), which provides a federal cause of action for injuries against a foreign state designated as a sponsor of terrorism. The court awarded damages to the plaintiffs in both cases, although the question of recovering damages from the defendants remains highly unsettled.

FSIA, which first became law in 1976, gives federal district courts original jurisdiction over most civil claims against foreign states, but applies many of the principles of sovereign immunity. This is the legal doctrine that a government entity may not be sued unless it has waived immunity. It applies in lawsuits against city, county, or state governments, where a claimant must follow steps set out by statute before filing suit. People claiming damages for injuries caused by foreign states have generally been barred from relief by this doctrine. Federal courts applied FSIA in blocking claims for damages caused by the September 11 terror attacks in In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, 538 F.3d 71 (2nd Cir. 2008), and a 2003 terror attack in Riyadh in Heroth v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 565 F.Supp.2d 59 (D.D.C. 2008).

Congress added an exception to FSIA in 1996, with amendments added in 2008, for foreign states designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” either at the time of the alleged injury or as a result of the alleged injury. The foreign state must also remain designated as such at the time a claimant files suit. The exception applies to claims for personal injuries or wrongful death resulting from acts such as hostage taking, torture, sabotage, or the support of such acts by the foreign state.

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The estate of a woman who died from vaccine-related complications may recover death benefits, but not injury benefits, under the federal Vaccine Act, according to a ruling by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Griglock v. Secretary of Health and Human Services. A Special Master found that the woman’s death was attributable to an influenza vaccination, allowing the death benefits claim to proceed, but also found that the statute of limitations for an injury benefits claim had expired. The Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit affirmed that decision.

The decedent, Sophie Griglock, received a vaccination for influenza on October 6, 2005, when she was seventy years old. In late November 2005, a neurologist diagnosed her with Guillian-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. It can cause paralysis and death due to an inability to breathe. Griglock died of GBS-related respiratory failure on May 11, 2007.

Griglock’s estate filed a petition for compensation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in April 2009. HHS did not contest the question of whether the vaccine caused Griglock’s GBS. It recommended death benefits of $250,000, the maximum amount allowed by the Vaccine Act. The estate also requested injury benefits under the Vaccine Act to compensate for Griglock’s medical expenses. The case went before a Special Master, who determined that the vaccine caused Griglock’s GBS and her GBS-related death. While this gave the estate standing to claim injury benefits, the Special Master determined that the claim, filed in 2009, was barred by the statute of limitations.

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A wrongful death lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks damages from the federal government for the allegedly unlawful killings of United States citizens abroad. The families of several people killed overseas by unmanned drone aircraft are claiming violations of the decedents’ constitutional rights as U.S. citizens. Unlike many wrongful death lawsuits, this suit alleges violations of statutory and constitutional rights, rather than negligence, by the government. The lawsuit is sure to generate public controversy, particularly since the government asserted national security reasons for the drone attacks.

Nasser al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki) and Sarah Khan, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against federal government officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, in mid-July 2012. Their complaint alleges that the federal government has engaged in targeted killings of suspected terrorists abroad since 2001. Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen living in Yemen, was added to a “kill list” in late 2009 or early 2010, based on suspicion of terrorist activity or support.

On September 30, 2011, the complaint says, unmanned drones operated by the CIA and the Department of Defense fired missiles at a vehicle in Yemen containing Anwar al-Aulaqi. The blast killed al-Aulaqi and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan. Another drone strike on October 14, 2011, also allegedly authorized by the defendants, killed at least seven people at a restaurant in Yemen, including another U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi’s 16 year-old son Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi.

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New safety standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) affecting “play yards,” portable playpens for infants and toddlers, will begin in December. Play yards are currently subject to voluntary safety standards, but the new standards will be mandatory for all manufacturers. During the four-year period ending in December 2011, according to the CPSC, play yards were involved in the deaths of over sixty children and injuries to nearly two hundred more. Play yards have reportedly been the subject of over twenty recalls during a twenty-five-year period. The new standards are part of a comprehensive set of reforms to children’s product safety known as Danny’s Law, named for a child who died due to a play yard collapse.

A typical play yard is a portable crib or playpen composed largely of mesh. In addition to acting as a crib for infants and toddlers, it can provide them an enclosed area in which to play. Children have died when a collapsing play yard traps them, while trapped under a mattress or other component, or by strangulation from straps attached to the sides. Some deaths resulted when children climbed out of a play yard and drowned in a nearby pool. The most common incident, according to the CPSC, involves a side rail collapse. In addition to the danger of a child getting out of the play yard after a collapse, it can also cause strangulation if a child’s neck is caught in the side rail. Side rail collapses account for up to ninety percent of reported play yard incidents and as many as one-third of play yard-related deaths. A side rail collapse reportedly caused the death of Danny Keysar, the namesake of Danny’s Law, in 1998 in Chicago.

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A professional baseball player, Kouichi Taniguchi, brought an unusual claim to the U.S. Supreme Court. Taniguchi sued a hotel over an injury he sustained falling through a deck. The hotel won the case, and obtained a judgment against Taniguchi for “interpretation costs,” per a provision in federal law. Taniguchi fought this all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in May. The case demonstrates the complex nature of expenses in litigation, and how far some parties will go to get a non-prevailing party to pay, or how far a party will go not to have to pay. The amount in dispute was just over $5,000, which makes the case even more remarkable when one considers the cost of taking a case to trial, let alone to the Supreme Court.

Taniguchi is a professional baseball player from Japan. He reportedly played for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, but left after only seven games due to an injured shoulder. He also played minor league ball in the United States for a time. In November 2006, he visited the Marianas Resort and Spa in Saipan. Saipan is an island in the Northern Marianas Islands, an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States in the Pacific Ocean. During a tour of the hotel, Taniguchi fell through a deck, sustaining injuries.

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The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), an office within the U.S. Department of Transportation, has delayed a final rule regarding rear visibility requirements in cars. This is the second delay of the rule since the agency began working on it. The purpose of the rule would be to prevent “backover” accidents due to a driver’s inability to see people or objects behind the vehicle. The Secretary of Transportation has said that they expect to have final standards ready by the end of 2012.

The rule is required by the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007, passed by the U.S. Congress in early 2008. This law addresses several child safety concerns, including the risk to children of vehicles moving in reverse where the driver cannot see the child. It is named for a two year-old child who died when his father accidentally backed his car over him in their driveway. According to the NHTSA, 292 deaths and 18,000 injuries result each year from “blind zones” behind vehicles. The majority of the fatalities involve light vehicles, meaning those weighing 10,000 pounds or less. Those most vulnerable to these kinds of accidents are children and the elderly. In addition to addressing visibility issues, the law requires rules for auto-reverse in power windows and transmission systems that prevent cars from easily shifting out of “park.”

The proposed rule would require additional mirrors or even camera devices to enable drivers to see the area behind the vehicle while driving in reverse. In December 2010, the NHTSA announced that it expected to require new passenger cars, minivans, pickup trucks, and other vehicles to have “rear mounted video cameras and in-vehicle displays” to allow an expanded field of vision for drivers.

The New York Times reportedly found that backup cameras are already standard issue in forty-five percent of new vehicles, and that they are available as an option in twenty-three percent. For all other vehicles, owners would have to purchase cameras. The NHTSA reportedly estimates that, for vehicles without an embedded navigational screen, the cost to a vehicle owner would be between $159 and $203, and between $58 and $88 for cars with a screen already installed. The total annual cost for the country would be between $1.9 and $2.7 billion.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced in February that the NHTSA would need to do further research before formally issuing the new rules. The rule has also proven to be controversial politically, considering the large price tag attached to it. The controversy persists even though it was actually President Bush who signed it into law in 2008. Bloomberg Businessweek says that it is among the five most expensive regulations still pending in the Obama administration, and it is one of many facing delays.

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A Maryland appellate court has overturned a verdict awarding $64,000 to a woman who suffered an injury on a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“Metro”) platform. The court found that Metro is entitled to sovereign immunity as a joint agency of the governments of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The decision calls into question the outcome of other pending lawsuits against Metro.

Veronica Tinsley slipped on a wet platform while exiting a train at the Cheverly Station on Metro’s Orange Line in 2007. She fell and broke her ankle as a result. She filed suit against Metro in Maryland state court, arguing that Metro violated its own procedures by mopping the platform during rush hour. She further alleged that Metro failed to post any warnings about the wet platform for riders. These failures breached Metro’s duty of care to its passengers, leading directly to her injuries. A jury found in her favor and awarded her damages.

Metro appealed the decision on the grounds that the doctrine of sovereign immunity precluded any claim for damages. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed with Metro and entered an order in early December overturning the jury verdict and award. The court held that Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia conferred their sovereign immunity protections on Metro when they jointly formed it as a government agency. Congress and the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland passed legislation approving an interstate compact signed by the three governments and authorizing the creation of an entity to manage public transportation across the three jurisdictions. Metro was officially formed in 1967. The interstate compact is the instrument that passed sovereign immunity protection on to Metro.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity generally prohibits suits against the government. It originates from the notion in a constitutional monarchy that the king created the courts and is the source of their authority. As such, the courts have no power to judge the king. The doctrine is practiced slightly differently in the United States today, but the underlying concept remains the same.

Governments may waive sovereign immunity in limited cases, such as in contract disputes. For tort cases such as this one, many states and the federal government have enacted laws that allow claims if the plaintiff first gives notice of the claim and meets various other requirements. The Maryland Tort Claims Act allows claims in certain types of cases but sets a strict limit on the amount of damages.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a series of initiatives in late September that it hopes will further ensure the safety of the food supply. The proposed measures, known as the Retail Food Safety Action Plan, would apply to food service establishments such as stores, restaurants, and schools. The Plan will focus on food safety rules at the state and local levels. It establishes a set of “model rules” to help managers in food service establishments handle food safety procedures, and standards for training personnel on food safety issues. The Plan follows a series of recent stories in the news about food contamination such as the recent cantaloupe recall.

The FDA is cooperating with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to promote best safety practices at the local level. It hopes to get local governments to implement its Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program, a series of standards developed by the FDA to encourage uniform food safety protocols nationwide.

The Plan also includes amendments to the 2009 Food Code, the most recent set of standards put out by the FDA. The Food Code is typically revised every few years. The proposed amendments include:
– Food establishments should have a plan for responding and cleaning up if an employee is phyiscally ill near where food is served, prepared, or stored.
– Food establishments should have clear standards about bare-handed contact with prepared food by employees.

– They should have consistent standards for how to display meat and poultry.

The FDA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is responsible for promoting public health by supervising and regulating food products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, cosmetics, and other products commonly used by the public. It also enforces various laws related to public health. It regulates safety for most food products, although many meat products fall under the Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction. FDA review and approval is a critical step towards getting a product to market in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

Food safety and quality control are vital tasks in promoting public health and preventing certain diseases. Food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli can result from poor food quality or lack of standards. Injuries can be severe, ranging from sickness and lost time at work to serious hospitalization or death.

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The Consumer Product Safety Commission has approved new voluntary limits on cadmium levels in children’s jewelry. A move to regulate cadmium began in 2010 after a recall of bracelets and pendants at Wal-Mart stores. The new standards represent a national consensus among manufacturers and importers of children’s jewelry as to the need to address the toxic metal. A series of mandatory limits has already developed through state regulation and litigation, but this new standard represents the first national standard.

Cadmium is a metal element that occurs as a byproduct of various industrial processes. For years cadmium was used in steel and plastic production and as a pigment, but use has declined considerably. It is still used in some batteries and solar panels. Cadmium exposure has been linked to a number of health problems, including flu-like symptoms, acute kidney problems, pulmonary emphysema, bone disease, and possibly cancer. Dangerous exposure can occur even with trace amounts of cadmium.

Wal-Mart stores recalled children’s bracelets and pendants from their stores in January 2010 due to concerns that they might contain cadmium. Children could receive dangerous doses of cadmium if the jewelry were placed in a child’s mouth, even without actually swallowing the product. Some Chinese companies use cadmium in jewelry production because of prohibitions on using lead. An American company, Tween Brands, reached a settlement in California in March 2011 in which it has agreed to eliminate cadmium from all of its products by January 2012. The settlement agreement only applies to the state of California. Different standards among U.S. states may have led to repeated and inconsistent testing of products, which has led to the current push for national standards.

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