March 5, 2012

Supreme Court Reaffirms Federal Preemption of State-Law Product Liability Claims Directed at Locomotive Equipment

Holland & Knight Alert
Michael T. Maroney

On February 29, 2012, the United States Supreme Court held that a former railroad worker’s state-law tort claims for design defect and failure to warn against manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive parts were preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act, 49 U.S.C. § 20701, et seq. (LIA). Kurns v. R.R. Friction Prods. Corp., __ S. Ct. __, No. 10-879, 2012 WL 631857, at *9 (2012).

In a 6 to 3 decision affirming summary judgment for the defendants, the Court concluded that the plaintiffs’ claims fell within the field of locomotive equipment regulation preempted by the LIA, as that field was defined 85 years ago in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926).


From 1947 to 1974, George Corson worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad as a welder and machinist repairing and maintaining locomotives in maintenance facilities. His duties included working with asbestos insulation surrounding locomotive boilers and installing locomotive brakeshoes containing asbestos. In 2005, Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. He and his wife filed suit in Pennsylvania state court against numerous defendants, including the railroad and the manufacturers and distributors of the products with which Corson worked. They alleged that those products were defectively designed because they contained asbestos and because they were not accompanied by adequate warnings regarding the dangers of asbestos exposure. They also alleged that the defendants negligently failed to warn of the risks associated with asbestos.

Following dismissal of most of the defendants — including the railroad, based on insufficient evidence of negligence — two defendants remained: Railroad Friction Products Corporation (RFPC), an alleged distributor of locomotive brakeshoes containing asbestos, and Viad Corp, the alleged successor-in-interest to a company that manufactured and sold locomotives and engine valves containing asbestos. RFPC and Viad moved for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs’ state-law claims were preempted by the LIA. The federal district court granted the motion and the Third Circuit affirmed.

Plaintiffs’ Claims Fall Within the Field Preempted By the LIA

The doctrine of preemption is grounded in Article VI of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which provides that federal law “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” There are three types of federal preemption: express preemption (when a federal statute expressly provides for it); conflict preemption (when state law conflicts with federal law); and field preemption (when federal law occupies an entire field exclusively). The Kurns case deals with field preemption. 

The LIA provides, in pertinent part (49 U. S. C. § 20701):

A railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts and appurtenances—

  1. are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury;
  2. have been inspected as required under this chapter and regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Transportation under this chapter; and
  3. can withstand every test prescribed by the Secretary under this chapter.

In Napier, the Court concluded that Congress intended the LIA to occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment, and that state statutes directed to the equipment of locomotives are preempted. In Kurns, the plaintiffs argued that their claims fell outside the field preempted by the LIA, as defined in Napier, because (1) the LIA regulates locomotives in use on a railroad line and Corson was injured maintaining locomotives in repair facilities; (2) the failure to warn claims are not based on the design or manufacture of the product; (3) the LIA regulates railroads but not manufacturers of locomotives or locomotive parts; and (4) the preempted field does not include state common law claims. The majority found each of these arguments unpersuasive.

First, the majority found no meaningful distinction between hazards arising from repair and maintenance as opposed to those arising from use on the line, because claims directed at the equipment of locomotives fell within the preempted field, regardless of the location of the equipment. Second, because the plaintiffs’ failure to warn claim was directed at the equipment of locomotives, that claim, like the design defect claim, fell within the preempted field. Third, the plaintiffs could not avoid preemption by aiming their claims at manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive parts because “Napier defined the field preempted by the LIA on the basis of the physical elements regulated — ‘the equipment of locomotives’ — not on the basis of the entity directly subject to regulation.” Kurns, 2012 WL 631857, at *7. Finally, the LIA’s preemptive scope was not limited to state legislation or regulation, and state common law claims directed to the subject of locomotive equipment suffered the same fate as statutes or regulations falling within the preempted field.

Conclusion: Failure to Warn Is a Distinction Without a Difference

The Kurns decision is significant because a majority of the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to carve out failure to warn claims from the scope of field preemption, finding that both the design defect and failure to warn claims were directed at the preempted field of locomotive equipment.

All of the justices agreed that the plaintiffs’ defective design claims were preempted. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, criticized the majority for conflating defective design and failure to warn claims by concluding that each was directed at locomotive equipment. Justice Sotomayor noted that failure to warn claims need not implicate the product’s physical composition or design. Rather, she wrote, a failure to warn claim can be a distinct cause of action that proceeds by taking the product’s physical design as a given and alleging that the product is safe only when accompanied by a warning. As such, “a product may be flawlessly designed and still subject its manufacturer or seller to liability for lack of adequate instructions or warnings.” Kurns, 2012 WL 631857, at *11.

Nonetheless, the majority found this to be a distinction without a difference because, in their view, a failure to warn claim alleges that the product itself is unlawfully dangerous unless accompanied by sufficient warnings, and Corson’s alleged injury was the result of his exposure to asbestos contained in the locomotive products. Moreover, as a practical matter, the majority recognized that imposing a duty to warn will inevitably influence a manufacturer’s design decisions.

The railroad industry can take comfort in the fact that the Kurns decision preserves the uniformity in the federal regulation of railroad equipment that is critical to railroads and manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive parts, and makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to craft state-law tort claims to avoid preemption.

This alert was republished in the Spring 2012 edition of Legal Insights, a Chartis newsletter.

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