Federal Statute Preempts State Products Liability Lawsuit Over Asbestos Exposure, According to Supreme Court: Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

After decades working on repair and maintenance of railroad locomotives, a man developed malignant mesothelioma. He sued multiple companies for alleged asbestos exposure, and the executor of his estate substituted in as plaintiff upon his death. After dismissal by the district court, which was upheld by the appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the matter in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 132 S. Ct. 1261 (2012). It affirmed the lower courts’ findings that a federal statute preempted the plaintiffs’ state tort claims.

The federal statute in question, the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., was passed by Congress in 1915. The law requires railroad carriers to maintain locomotives “in proper condition and safe to operate.” 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1). The statute generally preempts state law claims for locomotive-related injuries. In Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926), the Supreme Court reviewed the scope of the LIA’s preemption. It held that the law preempts lawsuits brought by railroad workers as well as passengers. The question presented in the Kurns case was whether it also preempted claims for injuries caused by alleged toxic exposure related to locomotive repair and maintenance, as opposed to injuries in locomotive accidents.

The decedent, George Corson, worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad for about twenty-seven years as a machinist and welder, beginning in 1947. He performed locomotive repair by installing brakeshoes, and he performed maintenance on locomotive boilers by removing insulation. His last year of employment at the railroad was 1974. Several decades later, in 2005, Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos.

In a 2007 lawsuit in a Pennsylvania state court, Corson and his wife asserted causes of action for design defects and failure to warn against fifty-nine defendants who manufactured or supplied equipment used by the railroad. Defendant Railroad Friction Products Corporation (RFPC) allegedly sold locomotive brakeshoes that contained asbestos. Defendant Viad Corp was allegedly the successor-in-interest to a manufacturer and distributor of locomotive engine parts that also contained asbestos.

The defendants removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment on federal preemption grounds. The federal district court granted their motion, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

The Supreme Court considered several arguments from the plaintiffs as to why the LIA should not preempt their claims. They attempted to distinguish Corson’s situation from other cases that followed Napier, focusing on the fact that Corson’s injuries were the result of alleged chemical exposure, not a physical accident. They also argued that their failure-to-warn claim operated independently from the LIA, because it addressed alleged errors that occurred when the defendants manufactured or sold their products. Finally, the plaintiffs asserted that, because the LIA only applied to common carriers, not suppliers, until 1988, it did not apply in this case. The Supreme Court found that Napier broadly applied LIA preemption to any injury claim arising from locomotive equipment, and it therefore rejected all of the plaintiffs’ arguments.

The personal injury attorneys at Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse represent the interests of Indiana accident victims and their families, helping them to obtain compensation for their damages. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our lawyers, contact us today online or at (888) 532-7766.

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Study Ranking States’ Success at Injury Prevention Gives Average Scores to Indiana, Indiana Injury Lawyer Blog, July 6, 2012

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