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The Locomotive Inspection Act Pre-empts State Tort Law Claims For Design Defects And Failure-To-Warn

Kurns v. R. R.Friction Prods. Corp.
Supreme Court of the United States, No. 10-879 (U.S.), (February 29, 2012)

by Colleen K. O’Brien, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

On February 29, 2012, the Supreme Court entered its decision in Kurns v. R.R. Friction Prods. Corp. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito and Kagan. Justice Kagan filed a separate concurring opinion as well. The majority opinion begins, “This case requires us to determine whether Petitioner’s state-law tort claims for defective design and failure-to-warn are pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”), 49 U.S.C. § 20701, et. seq. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that Petitioners’ claims fall within the field pre-empted by the Act as that field was defined by this Court’s decision in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926). We agree.”

This matter concerned whether Federal railroad safety laws pre-empted an injured rail worker from suing a railroad parts manufacturer under a more protective state regulation. From 1947 to 1994, plaintiffs’ decedent worked as a welder, machinist, and supervisor for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad. He was employed at different facilities in Montana and South Dakota. Much of his job involved removing insulation from locomotive boilers and installing brake shoes on the locomotives.

Plaintiffs claimed that throughout the 1947 to 1994 time period their decedent was repeatedly exposed to asbestos from asbestos insulation and asbestos-containing brake shoes. After decedent’s retirement, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, the only known cause of which is exposure to asbestos. Plaintiffs sued the railroad parts manufacturers and distributors of the locomotives and locomotive parts. Plaintiffs alleged that their decedent contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in the defendants’ products, and that the products did not carry warnings about the dangers of asbestos. The defendants admitted to manufacturing asbestos-containing products and failing to provide specific product warnings under state law.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania rejected plaintiffs’ claims, contending that they were barred by the LIA, which provides that a railroad carrier may only use a locomotive that is in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether Congress intended the Federal railroad safety acts to pre-empt state law-based tort lawsuits.

Federal railroad regulations are silent as to warnings for asbestos-containing products. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claimants were pre-empted by the LIA which, they argued, occupied the entire field of such claims pursuant to Napier (holding that pre-emption “extends to the design, the construction, and the material of every part of the locomotive being tendered and of all appurtenances.” The Supreme Court was persuaded by the defendants’ argument that the LIA controls the entire field of regulation of railroad parts manufacture and use, and therefore, found the state tort claims were pre-empted. The Court relied mainly upon Napier.

Judge Thomas’ opinion made it clear that failure-to-warn claims fall fully within the field of claims governed solely by federal regulation, not state-based tort law. The opinion concluded, “a failure-to-warn claim alleges that the product itself is unlawfully dangerous unless occupied by sufficient warnings or instructions. . . . Because Petitioners’ failure-to-warn claims are therefore directed at the equipment of locomotives, they fall within the pre-empted field defined by Napier.” Thus, the Supreme Court held that the LIA pre-empted the state law design defect claims and the state law failure-to-warn claims. The Court emphasized that state law must yield to a Congressional act, to the extent of any conflict with a Federal statute, even if there is no express pre-emption. The Court further determined that the Federal Railroad Safety Act did not change the scope of the LIA.