U.S. SC rules against asbestos plaintiff in important case

John O'Brien Feb. 29, 2012, 1:00pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a legal theory that would have given asbestos attorneys a new industry to attack with lawsuits.

The court ruled Wednesday in favor of companies involved with the design and manufacture of locomotives and their parts. The estate of the late George Corson, a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier, had sued Railroad Friction Products Corp. and Viad Corp. in Philadelphia, alleging injury from exposure to asbestos in trains and train parts distributed by the companies.

The estate's design-defect and failure-to-warn claims were preempted by the federal Locomotive Inspection Act, the court held in a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas. The decision was in line with one made by the court 85 years ago in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line.

"(P)etitioners contend that the LIA's preemptive scope does not extend to state common-law claims, as opposed to state legislation or regulation," Thomas wrote.

"Napier, however, held that the LIA 'occup(ied) the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment' to the exclusion of state regulation. That categorical conclusion admits of no exception for state common-law duties and standards of care."

The decision affirmed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. It had been removed from a state court to Philadelphia federal court.

Dissenting were justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Sotomayor's dissenting opinion said that the plaintiffs' claim for failure to warn was not preempted, though it agreed the defective design claim was.

The federal government and the American Association for Justice were among the groups supporting the plaintiffs' lawsuit.

"Because the right to a legal remedy for wrongful injury is a fundamental right under the Constitution, courts may not preempt such a cause of action and leave injured persons without remedy unless Congress specifically intended that result," the AAJ's amicus brief said.

"The mere silence of Congress in a statute not directed at railroads rather than manufacturers falls short."

Complaints against 50 other companies were dismissed.

"Although the LIA thus displaces any state-law standard of care governing the fitness for use of locomotives, tenders and their parts and appurtenances, it does not displace any state-law cause of action for a party injured by a violation of the LIA," the brief filed by the U.S. government says.

"Rather, an injured party may bring a state common-law tort action (to the extent such action is not precluded by some other federal law, such as FELA with respect to suits by railroad employees) and the substantive standard applied in such case is the safety standard the LIA prescribes."

The Third Circuit ruled the opposite in September 2010, upholding a district court's opinion.

"The LIA was originally passed in 1911, and was amended in 1915 and 1924. In pertinent part, it provides that '(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," the Third Circuit's decision says.

"While the statute itself is silent as to any preemptive effect, one can easily understand how a state law or action which regulates whether a locomotive or any of its parts and appurtenances 'are in proper condition and safe to operate' could conflict with federal safety regulations."

Backing that decision are business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They say the plaintiffs seek to overturn 85 years of settled law to carve out an exception for tort lawsuits.

Legal Newsline is owned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform.

"Petitioners seek a change in the law that would allow them to pursue asbestos personal injury claims against locomotive equipment manufacturers and distributors not previously amenable to suit, further widening the net of asbestos litigation that has burdened the nation's courts, ensnarled more than 10,000 companies and forced almost 100 employers into bankruptcy," says NAM's brief, filed last week.

"Petitioners ask the court to draw a distinction between preemption of state statutes and regulations and state common law claims that is inconsistent with precedent, artificial, litigation-generating, and could potentially expand liability in other contexts."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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Organizations in this Story

National Association of Manufacturers
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Washington, DC 20001

American Association for Justice
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Washington, DC 20001

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