Supreme Court Rules that Federal Law Preempts State Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Asbestos Exposure: Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

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.

The defendants removed the case to federal court, where they were granted summary judgment. They successfully argued that the LIA preempted the plaintiffs’ state claims. Congress enacted the LIA in 1911. The statute prohibits a railroad carrier from using a locomotive that is not “in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury.” 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1). The Supreme Court already held in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926), that the LIA preempted state claims for railroad injuries brought by both passengers and rail workers.

The plaintiffs made two arguments to the Court as to why the LIA should not preempt an asbestos claim. They first argued that a subsequent statute, the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA) reduced the scope of claims preempted by the LIA. The Court held, however, that the FRSA does not alter federal law regarding railroads, but rather gives the Secretary of Transportation authority to promulgate regulations to fill gaps in existing railroad safety law.

The plaintiffs’ second argument, in which the U.S. Solicitor General joined as amicus curiae, was that the LIA applies to injuries sustained in the operation of locomotives, while their claim related to injuries sustained during maintenance and repair. This argument would allow the Court to rule in their favor without overturning Napier. The plaintiffs further argued that, even if the LIA preempted the design defect claim, the failure-to-warn claim could stand separately. Finally, they argued that the defendants were not subject to the LIA’s jurisdiction at the time Corson’s injuries occurred, as the LIA only applied to common carriers, not suppliers, until 1988. The Court rejected all of these arguments as inconsistent with Napier, which applied the LIA to all physical elements of locomotives and locomotive equipment. The Court therefore ruled that the LIA fully preempted the plaintiffs’ state products liability claims.

At Lebowitz & Mzhen, we 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, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

More Blog Posts:

$2.4M Maryland Wrongful Death Verdict Awarded to Family of Forklift Driver Who Had Asbestos-Related Cancer, Maryland Accident Law Blog, January 15, 2011
Washington D.C. Cracks Down On 23 Landlords with Lawsuit for Code Violations Due To Poor Conditions on the Premises, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, April 8, 2008
Senate Judiciary Panel Reviews Compensation Bill That Could Remove Asbestos-Related Personal Injury Cases From Courts, Maryland Accident Law Blog, June 14, 2006

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