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October Term, 2011

February 29, 2012

Today the Supreme Court issued one decision, described below, of interest to the business community.

Locomotive Inspection Act—Preemption of State-Law Tort Claims

Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., No. 10-879 (previously discussed in the June 6, 2011 Docket Report).

The Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”), 49 U.S.C. §§ 20701 et seq. provides that “[a] railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive . . . only when . . . its parts and appurtenances . . . are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury.” In Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co., 272 U.S. 605, 613 (1926), the Supreme Court held that the LIA “was intended to occupy the field” of locomotive design, construction, and material. Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed that holding in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., No. 10-879, and concluded that the LIA preempts state-law product-liability claims arising from the use of asbestos-containing products in the repair of locomotives.

Petitioner, the plaintiff below, sued two manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive parts, alleging that her husband had contracted mesothelioma as a result of having been exposed to the manufacturers’ asbestos-containing products while repairing a railroad’s locomotives. The plaintiff asserted state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims.

Relying heavily on the principle of stare decisis, the Court unanimously held that the LIA preempts petitioner’s design-defect claims. The Court rejected the argument that subsequent legislation, the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, had narrowed the LIA’s preemptive effect. The Court also rejected the argument that the LIA’s preemptive force is limited to claims involving locomotives that are in use and does not extend to locomotives that are being repaired. Finally, the Court rejected the argument that the LIA preempts only state legislation and regulation but not state common-law claims.

By a 6-3 majority, the Court held that the LIA preempts petitioner’s failure-to-warn claims. In an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Court concluded that because a “failure-to-warn claim alleges that the product itself is unlawfully dangerous unless accompanied by sufficient warnings or instructions,” such claims are “directed at the equipment of locomotives” and therefore “fall within the pre-empted field defined by Napier.” Slip op. 9. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ginsberg and Breyer, Justice Sotomayor wrote that petitioner’s failure-to-warn claims should not be held preempted because they “do[] not implicate” a locomotive’s “physical composition at all.” Slip op. 3 (dissenting opinion).

In reaffirming the preemptive force of the LIA, today’s decision is important not only for manufacturers of locomotives and locomotive parts, but also for the railroads, which employ—and repair—locomotives during the course of their operations.

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