Supreme Court Finds that Federal Law Preempts State Asbestos Lawsuit: Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.
A federal statute regulating locomotive safety preempts a state products liability and wrongful death lawsuit, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. A former railroad worker, and later his estate, sued multiple companies, alleging that exposure to asbestos in their products while he was a railroad employee caused his cancer. In Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 132 S. Ct. 1261 (2012), the Supreme Court affirmed lower court judgments dismissing the lawsuit due to federal preemption.
George Corson, the decedent, worked for nearly three decades as a machinist and welder for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. He worked in locomotive repair, installing brakeshoes; and in locomotive maintenance, removing boiler insulation. He ceased employment with the railroad in 1974, and received a diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma in 2005. He and his wife filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania state court in 2007 naming fifty-nine defendants, including Railroad Friction Products Corporation (RFPC) and Viad Corp. The lawsuit alleged that RFPC distributed products containing asbestos, and that Viad succeeded a company that manufactured and distributed products containing asbestos. The plaintiffs asserted causes of action for defective design and failure to warn of danger. Corson died after filing suit, and the court substituted his executor, Gloria Kurns, as a plaintiff.
The defendants removed the case to the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. That court granted their motion for summary judgment based on the argument that the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., preempted state claims for damages. The statute, enacted in 1911, requires “railroad carriers” to maintain locomotive equipment in safe working order. 49 U.S.C. § 20701(1). The Supreme Court held that the LIA preempts state claims for injuries by both railroad passengers and rail workers in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling, and the plaintiffs appealed.