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Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: February 29, 2012
Case #: 10-879
Thomas, J, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Kagan; Kagan concurred; Sotomayor concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Ginsburg and Breyer
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-879.pdf

Preemption: (The Locomotive Inspection Act, 49 U.S.C. ยง 20701 et seq., preempts defective design and failure to warn state law tort claims.)

A railroad employee received a diagnosis of mesothelioma. The employee asserted that exposure to asbestos, which occurred while working for St. Paul & Pacific Railroad from 1947-1974, caused the disease. Petitioner represents the employee’s estate. The lower courts dismissed the employee’s case against manufacturers of products alleged to contain asbestos on the grounds that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act preempted the claims for defective design and failure-to-warn.
Supreme Court precedent from 1926 held that in order to protect the health and safety of employees, the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) constitutes implied field preemption for purposes of state laws that impose requirements on railroads beyond what federal law requires.
The Court today reaffirmed that holding, and held that the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 did not alter the scope of LIA field preemption, which includes “the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment.” The Court held that the preempted field includes state common law claims as well as statutory and regulatory claims. The Court further held that the scope of the field preempted by LIA is not coextensive with the regulatory power of the federal government. As a result of that holding, the preempted field includes the repair and maintenance of locomotives. The field of federal railroad law also preempts suits against manufacturers of products used by railroads for conduct that occurred before the federal government began to regulate manufacturers under LIA in 1988. The Court further held that because failure-to-warn claims allege that a product is defective in the absence of particular warnings, those claims are preempted.