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Supreme Court says federal law protects railroads from asbestos-related claims

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal law bars railroad workers who were injured or killed by asbestos from suing for damages under state statutes.


In Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp, the court’s nine justices agreed that the Locomotive Inspection Act, or LIA, takes precedence over state laws that protect workers from asbestos-containing products that are defectively designed. In a 6-3 decision, a majority also ruled that the LIA “pre-empted” laws that require companies to warn workers who are at risk of being exposed to asbestos.


George Corson, a welder and machinist who worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad for nearly 30 years, was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 2005. Two years later, Corson filed suit in Pennsylvania, claiming he was exposed to asbestos while installing brake shoes and stripping insulation. His claims are common in asbestos-related cases — the equipment Corson handled was defectively designed because it contained asbestos and he was never warned of the dangers of asbestos or trained in how to handle it properly.


Corson died shortly after filing suit, and the executrix of his estate, Gloria Kurns, became a party, along with Corson’s wife.


In 2009, two respondents, Railroad Friction Products, which distributed the brake shoes, and Viad Corp., a company that manufactured asbestos-containing engine valves, moved the case to federal district court, which dismissed it on grounds that the LIA pre-empted Corson’s claims under state law. An appeals court upheld that decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case in June 2011.


Chief among the issues considered by the justices was whether a Pennsylvania law designed to protect workers from sickness and disease was outside the purview of the FIA, which “endeavors solely to prevent accidental injury in the operation of trains.” In oral arguments, Corson’s attorneys claimed that the FIA only pertained to locomotives that were “in use,” not those under repair.


The court rejected that argument. In an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the justices said a previous interpretation of the law, in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line, held that Congress intended the LIA to “occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment,” including permitting the use of asbestos. That decision, Thomas wrote, did not distinguish between “hazards arising from repair and maintenance as opposed to those arising from use on the line.”


In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan called the Napier case “an anachronism,” but that changing the statute will require Congressional action. “Napier governs so long as Congress lets it,” she said.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed that the LIA pre-empts state claims for defective design. However, Sotomayor said, granting the FIA precedence over state laws that require manufacturers to warn workers of asbestos will leave injured parties without a legal remedy.


“It is difficult to believe” Sotomayor wrote, “that Congress would, without comment, remove all means of judicial recourse for those injured by illegal conduct.”


Alliance for Justice, a national association of advocacy groups, said in a statement that the court’s decision puts corporate interests over public health and safety.


“By upholding the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the corporate defendants, the Supreme Court is preventing injured citizens from holding railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety laws and regulations, many of which speak to local safety hazards and provide more stringent protections than those afforded by federal laws,” the organization said. “Once again the Corporate Court has used federal preemption to protect corporate interests and prevent states from protecting public safety.”