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Supreme Court rules state tort law claims preempted by federal locomotive statute

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) [49 USC § 20701] preempts state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims because these claims fall within the field of locomotive equipment regulation preempted by the act. The petitioner, George Corson, contracted mesothelioma and passed away after working as a welder and mechanic on the braking system of trains which contained asbestos. Corson had urged the court [JURIST report] to construe the LIA narrowly as applying to the safety of locomotives in use on railroad lines and not applying to hazards to mechanics conducting repairs. The court relied on its decision in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. [text] to hold that the petitioner's claims were preempted pursuant to the field preemption doctrine, which applies "when the scope of a [federal] statute indicates that Congress intended federal law to occupy a field exclusively." The court rejected the petitioner's arguments that the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA) altered the LIA's preemptive scope and that the failure-to-warn claim could prevail even if the design-defect claim was preempted.

Justice Elena Kagan, in her concurring opinion, concluded that the design-defect and failure-to-warn claims were preempted by the LIA because "Napier recognized the federal agency's delegated authority over "the design, the construction and the material of every part of the locomotive."" Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred in part and dissented in part, and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though they agreed that the design-defect claim was preempted by the LIA, they concluded that the failure-to-warn claim was not preempted because the field defined in Napier differently today because recent cases have regularly rejected the field preemption doctrine when statutory language does not contain an express preemption clause.

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