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SCOTUS: LIA Preempts Defective Design, Failure to Warn Claims

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 29, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit today in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products, finding that the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) preempts a state-law tort for asbestos exposure.

Lead plaintiff George Corson worked as a locomotive welder and machinist for 27 years, installing brakeshoes on locomotives and stripping insulation from locomotive boilers. In 2005, Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, the singular cause of which is asbestos exposure.

In 2007, Corson and his wife sued 59 defendants that manufactured and sold locomotives and parts containing asbestos in Pennsylvania state court, alleging that Corson’s injuries were caused by the defendants’ defective design and failure to warn.

The defendants removed the case to federal court, where both the district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the claim on the theory of implied field preemption. Both courts agreed that the LIA is the controlling law for railroad safety regulations and preempts any state-tort based product liability claims, reports the Alliance for Justice.

The Supreme Court agreed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 6-3 majority, found the Court's 1926 Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. controlling, and ruled that the LIA preempted Corson's claims. In doing so, the Court rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that their claims fall outside of the field pre-empted by the LIA, as it was defined in Napier.

In a part-concurring, part-dissenting opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the LIA preempts the design defect claim, but that the Court should have allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with the failure to warn claim, reports the ABA Journal. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in Sotomayor's opinion.

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