Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

Issues 

Oral argument: 
November 9, 2011

From 1947 to 1974, George Corson worked as a machinist in several locomotive repair and maintenance facilities. He subsequently died of malignant mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos during his employment. Corson’s widow and executrix brought state-law tort claims against Respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corporation, entities responsible for the manufacture and distribution of asbestos-containing locomotive parts. The district court dismissed Corson’s case—asserting that the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) preempted the state-law claims—and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed this determination. Corson’s representatives argue that their state claims are not preempted because the LIA only regulates those locomotives that are in actual use. The Respondents, however, contend that the state-law claims are precluded because the LIA was intended to regulate the entire field of design and construction of locomotives. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine the preemptive scope of the LIA, and will establish the appropriate boundaries between states’ traditional regulatory power over railroad safety and Congress’s power to establish national uniformity in railroad-safety standards.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Did Congress intend the Federal Railroad Safety Acts to preempt state law-based tort lawsuits?

Facts 

George Corson worked as a machinist, maintaining and repairing locomotives for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, from 1947 to 1974. Corson’s work for the railroad involved removing insulation and installing brake shoes, tasks which repeatedly exposed him to asbestos. In 2005, Corson was diagnosed with fatal malignant mesothelioma; exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of this cancerous tumor. Corson initiated this lawsuit in Pennsylvania state court, but after his death, in the early stages of the proceedings, both his widow, Freida Jung Corson, and the executrix of his estate, Gloria Kurns, continued to represent him in court.

As part of the suit, Petitioners Kurns and Corson sued fifty-nine defendants, including Respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp (“RFPC and Viad”), seeking compensatory and punitive damages resulting from the harm caused by Corson’s on-the-job exposure to asbestos. Specifically, the Petitioners claimed that the Respondents—who were responsible for the manufacture and sale of asbestos-containing brake pads and engine valves with which Corson worked—failed to properly warn their employees about the danger of working with asbestos. The Petitioners also asserted that the asbestos-containing parts were defectively designed. The state court granted summary judgment to all defendants except RFPC and Viad, determining that the other defendants played no significant role in Corson’s exposure to asbestos. With only two defendants left, RFPC and Viad successfully removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on the basis of diversity of citizenship. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of RFPC and Viad, holding that federal law preempted the Petitioners’ state-based products liability tort claims. The district court rested its opinion on the Supreme Court’s decision in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co., which held that federal law preempts state law-based claims concerning locomotives used in interstate commerce.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, ruling that the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) completely governs the field of locomotive regulation and prevents the Petitioners from asserting their products liability claims. The Third Circuit agreed with the district court that Congress intended to preempt the entire field of locomotive regulation within interstate commerce, reaching even the repair and maintenance of locomotives in repair shops. The court also agreed that the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which provides that existing state laws remain in effect until federal regulation is issued on a subject, does not prevent federal preemption of any claim involving locomotives or railroad parts. Thus, any state-law claim in the area of locomotive regulation, such as Corson’s claim, is consequently preempted.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the federal LIA preempts any state law-based tort lawsuit in the field of locomotive regulation.

Analysis 

The Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA” or “the Act”) requires railroad carriers to ensure that their locomotives are in safe operating condition when in service. . Petitioners Gloria Kurns and Freida Jung Corson argue, however, that the LIA does not apply to locomotives under repair in off-line railroad-maintenance facilities. Thus, the Petitioners assert that their state-based claims—arising from decedent George Corson’s exposure to asbestos—are not field preempted by federal law. In contrast, Respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp (“RFPC and Viad”) contend that the LIA delegated to the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) categorical authority to regulate the design and construction of locomotive equipment, either on tracks or in repair shops. Hence, according to RFPC and Viad, any state regulation over the same subject matter is preempted.

LIA’s Regulated Field

The Petitioners argue that, as a matter of grammatical and textual construction, the LIA regulates only locomotives in actual use on the railroad, and does not impose any requirements on locomotives in maintenance or repair facilities. The Petitioners also contend that, consistent with the Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”)’s own interpretation, the LIA delegates to federal agencies the authority to ensure that locomotives are in proper condition and safe to operate, but does not grant these agencies any authority to regulate the repair process. In Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co., the Supreme Court stated that the Interstate Commerce Commission has the authority to prescribe regulations determining whether a locomotive is fit for service on a highway of interstate commerce. Accordingly, the Petitioners claim that the fitness for service on railroad lines is the narrow field that the LIA was intended to regulate. Because the scope of field preemption must equal the scope of the regulated field, the Petitioners argue that the LIA does not preempt state-based claims that address injuries resulting from off-line, non-operational locomotives.

Additionally, the Petitioners claim that field preemption under the LIA is inapplicable here because the Respondents, who are manufacturers and distributors of locomotive equipment, were not subject to LIA regulation between 1947 and 1974, the period in which Corson was exposed to asbestos. The Petitioners argue that the LIA applied only to common carriers until the late 1980s, when its penalty provisions were revised to include manufacturers of railroad equipment.

Respondents RFPC and Viad, on the other hand, argue that the Napier Court determined that the LIA was intended to fully regulate the field of material, design, and construction of locomotive equipment. RFPC and Viad contend that the LIA’s authority does not cease merely because locomotives move from railroads to maintenance facilities, as the LIA imposes its regulatory authority over locomotive equipment itself. In Napier, the Respondents note, the Court ruled that the DOT had been delegated the authority to require that locomotive equipment comply with LIA safety standards. Hence, RFPC and Viad claim that the DOT alone has the authority to inspect locomotive equipment and to ensure its safe design and manufacture. Because a locomotive’s material, design, and construction remain the same whether the locomotive is in use or in maintenance facilities, RFPC and Viad argue that the correct regulatory scope of the LIA is the entire field of locomotive equipment. RFPC and Viad thus conclude that, as the Petitioners’ claims fall within the LIA’s regulated field, the claims are preempted.

Furthermore, RFPC and Viad deny the Petitioners’ argument that the LIA’s historical exclusion of locomotive manufacturers from its provisions prevents the operation of field preemption. RFPC and Viad claim that the scope of the LIA’s field preemption depends not on the identity of the party being regulated—manufacturer or otherwise—but on the object being regulated, namely the material, design, and construction of locomotives. Therefore, because the Petitioners’ claims are closely related to the design and construction of locomotive equipment, RFPC and Viad assert that it is irrelevant whether locomotive manufacturers and distributors were subject to the LIA at the time of injury.

Congressional Intent

The Petitioners contend that the LIA does not reflect a clear congressional intent to override state-law claims. It is unlikely, they argue, that the LIA was meant to preempt state-law remedies for injured railroad workers, as workers have looked for many years to the LIA to successfully establish liability in state-based claims. The Petitioners further aver that the LIA’s full legislative history fails to establish a clear and manifest congressional intent to preclude state-based personal injury claims. The Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), the Petitioners note, covers railroad safety in a more comprehensive manner than the LIA, and specifically provides that existing state laws remain effective until federal regulations on the same subject are issued. However, because the FRA has not exercised its authority under the FRSA to regulate the railroad repair process, state laws that do afford remedies for workers injured during locomotive repair are not preempted.

Respondents RFPC and Viad, on the other hand, argue that the LIA’s legislative development does not diminish the Act’s preemptive scope. While the LIA, according to RFPC and Viad, was intended to address certain specific safety hazards posed by locomotive equipment, Congress enacted the FRSA in order to promote nationally uniform railroad-safety standards, covering areas that were not previously regulated by federal authorities. In particular, RFPC and Viad note, Congress intended the FRSA to supplement existing federal statutes, not to replace or alter them. RFPC and Viad consequently contend that Congress intended to leave the LIA’s existing regulated field—the safety of locomotive equipment—undisturbed. For that reason, RFPC and Viad assert, the Petitioners’ state-law claims are preempted.

Implied Conflict Preemption

An alternative preemption doctrine—conflict preemption—arises when state laws impede the full execution of congressional intent. The Petitioners urge the Court not to determine this case under conflict preemption, which was not raised in prior proceedings. Nevertheless, they contend that, if the Court finds it is necessary to address the issue, it should decide that their failure-to-warn and defective-design claims are not in conflict with the LIA. The Petitioners argue that, because the LIA does not proscribe or preclude any particular type of warning or instructions, state-law actions for inadequate warning do not clash with federal laws. In addition, they observe that the FRA has considered regulating asbestos in locomotives, but has decided not to take any regulatory measures. Thus, there exists nothing under the LIA regulating the use of asbestos in locomotives, and injured railroad workers should be able to proceed with state-law claims based on dangerous use of asbestos.

Respondents RFPC and Viad, however, contend that allowing the Petitioners’ state-law claims to move forward would frustrate the congressional intent to form nationally uniform locomotive-design standards. Echoing the argument made by amicus United States, RFPC and Viad assert that state-law defective-design claims may effectively prescribe different state safety standards for operational locomotives, thus creating a patchwork of safety standards across the states. Such differences, RFPC and Viad argue, will defeat the objective of the LIA, which is to achieve national uniformity in locomotive-safety regulations. RFPC and Viad further contend that state failure-to-warn claims may also interfere with the LIA’s goal of national uniformity. RFPC and Viad note that different states have varying standards on which particular locomotive design or construction requires a warning, and what constitutes a sufficient warning; thus, compliance with different standards may require locomotive designers and manufacturers to institute a range of different and potentially incompatible physical alterations.

Discussion 

The Locomotive Inspection Act and Preemption

The Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”), passed in 1911 and amended in 1915 and 1924, does not expressly preempt any tort claims based on state law. Congress enacted the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”) in 1970 to provide additional federal regulation; the FRSA clarified that state law governs any area where the LIA or other federal law does not control. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case may limit the kind of claims that future plaintiffs can successfully bring to court. If the Third Circuit’s reasoning in favor of Respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp (“RFPC and Viad”) is affirmed, the LIA will preempt state law-based claims within the entire field of locomotive regulation, including the safety of locomotive parts used in maintenance facilities.

Arguing on behalf of the Respondents, the Chamber of Commerce (“the Chamber”) asserts that Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co. a Supreme Court case from 1926, is still good law. Specifically, the Chamber contends that Napier is an apt example of the modern Court’s early approach to preemption. Furthermore, the Chamber argues that stare decisis strongly favors adhering to the broad preemption standard presented in Napier, interpreting the LIA as preempting the entire field of railroad safety.

However, amici curiae for Petitioners Gloria Kurns and Freida Jung Corson argue that the Napier decision is anachronistic, conflicting with the contemporary approach to preemption. Current policy, according to the Public Law Scholars, has shifted away from a rule of “automatic” field preemption, requiring instead a more direct conflict between federal and state law. The United States, moreover, contends that the LIA was never intended to comprehensively preempt all state tort claims. In fact, courts have long held that injured parties may bring state tort actions against a railroad, even where state legislation to regulate locomotive equipment may be foreclosed.

Congressional Intent

Congress’s intent is the key factor in determining whether federal law preempts an entire field. Hence, the Court’s decision in this case may lead to further legislation if Congress wishes to clarify or refine its intent.

Amici for the Respondents RFPC and Viad contend that Congress intended the LIA to preempt the entire field of locomotive regulation, noting that the Napier Court specifically found a Congressional desire to regulate the entire field of locomotives and locomotive equipment. The American Association for Justice (“AAJ”) rebuts this notion, however, claiming that Congress did not intend to preempt workers’ negligence claims. Rather, in the AAJ’s view, preempting state law causes of action actually frustrates Congress’s true purpose, which was to expand the tort remedies available to railroad workers who were wrongfully injured. The AAJ further argues that there is no inherent conflict between federal railroad regulation and tort lawsuits against dangerous products.

Uniformity and Available Remedies

In dismissing the Petitioners’ case, the Third Circuit argued that if each state created its own liability rules, locomotive manufacturers would have to change their safety standards each time a train crossed state lines. Similarly, the National Association of Manufacturers (“NAM”) also contends that allowing tort claims to bypass federal preemption will subject locomotive manufacturers to uncertainty through complex and inconsistent lawsuits. However, Public Justice, P.C. argues that tort claims in this field will not hinder uniformity, and that differing state standards are inherent in the system of federalism.

The Supreme Court’s decision will ultimately affect what remedies are available to injured railroad workers and determine the extent to which common law remedies in this field may be preempted. NAM argues that, outside of tort lawsuits, injured workers may be able to benefit from over $30 billion in privately funded trusts created specifically to compensate victims of asbestos. The Respondents RFPC and Viad also argue that railroad employees injured by employer negligence can bring claims under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (“FELA”), thus dispelling any concern that preemption will limit employees’ access to justice. Yet the United States notes that FELA does not provide injured railroad workers with a remedy against negligent manufacturers, independent contractors, or third parties. Since allowing a tort remedy does not frustrate the purposes of the LIA, the United States argues that the Court should allow such claims.

Conclusion 

This case will determine whether the Locomotive Inspection Act preempts state-law tort claims against locomotive parts manufacturers for injuries that occurred in railroad-maintenance facilities. Petitioners Kurns and Corson argue that the LIA only regulates locomotives in actual service on railroad lines, and thus that its preemptive scope does not cover state-based claims arising from injuries sustained when the locomotives were off-line or in repair. On the other hand, Respondents RFPC and Viad contend that the LIA was intended by Congress to fully regulate the design and construction of locomotive equipment, regardless of whether the locomotive is in use or in repair off-line. The Court’s decision will determine the scope of LIA’s preemption, and may provide guidance for interpreting federal laws consistently with Congress’s intent to create nationally uniform railroad-safety standards.

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