DC Appellate Court Affirms that OSHA’s Hazardous Material Regulations Do Not Preempt Personal Injury Claims Under State Law

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) to recent changes made to a federal regulation affecting hazardous materials. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) amended its hazard communication (HazCom) standard in March 2012. ATRA claimed that OSHA overstepped its authority, but the court disagreed. ATRA v. OSHA, No. 12-229, slip op. (D.C. Cir., Dec. 27, 2013). While the case involves a range of complex questions of regulatory law, the bottom line is that the ruling is good for personal injury plaintiffs. The HazCom standard mandates labeling and other warnings about materials known to pose health risks to workers and consumers. The court affirmed that it does not preempt state tort law, meaning that it does not prevent plaintiffs from recovering damages in a suit for injuries brought under state law.

OSHA has authority under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to promulgate regulations promoting workplace safety, but these regulations may not supersede or preempt state law claims for injuries or wrongful death. 29 U.S.C. § 653(b)(4). The HazCom standard, 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200, requires classification of known hazards associated with exposure to chemical products and disclosure of those hazards to workers. This disclosure takes the form of labels placed on chemical containers and “safety data sheets,” along with programs for providing this information to employees.

Since the HazCom standard was first introduced in 1983, companies have had some leeway as to the format of the labels, but in 2012, OSHA issued a new rule standardizing all labels and data sheets nationwide according to the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. It stated that the rule would preempt state and local laws and regulations relating to labeling requirements, but not state law tort claims, such as failure to warn and products liability.

ATRA contended that the new rule exceeded OSHA’s authority under § 653(b)(4) by purporting to change the scope of federal preemption. It sued OSHA to overturn the HazCom modifications. ATRA, as an advocate for what has been called “tort reform,” generally seeks to limit personal injury litigation at the state level. Both ATRA and OSHA agreed, according to the court, that OSHA cannot modify the meaning of preemption. OSHA argued that it did not mean for this provision of HazCom to have such an effect, while ATRA claimed that it had the full force of a regulation.

The court ruled in OSHA’s favor. It called ATRA’s petition for review “much ado about nothing,” ATRA, slip op. at 7, and held that the case was not ripe for review. This is good for personal injury plaintiffs. Federal preemption has barred claims under state law for injuries allegedly caused by pharmaceutical products, so a ruling stating that chemical manufacturers and suppliers are not necessarily shielded from liability by federal regulations is welcome news.

The personal injury attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area who have suffered injuries due to the negligent or unlawful conduct of others to recover their just compensation. For a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

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Supreme Court Rules that Federal Law Preempts State Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Asbestos Exposure: Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, October 12, 2012

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