March 6, 2012

On  February  29,  2012,  the  United  States  Supreme  Court  refused  to  narrow  field  preemption jurisprudence, which provides a defense to common law tort claims.  In Kurns v. Railroad FrictionProducts, Inc., U.S., No. 10-879, slip op. (U.S. Feb. 29, 2012), a railroad employee sought to recover damages for alleged exposure to asbestos in locomotives and locomotive parts.  The district granted summary judgment for the defendants on the ground that the employee’s state-law claims were preempted by the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. §20701, et seq. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts, holding that Plaintiff’s state-law design- defect and failure-to-warn claims fell within the field of locomotive equipment regulation pre-empted by the LIA as that field was defined in its prior decision, Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U. S. 605, 2-11 (1926).  In Napier, the Supreme Court held two state laws prescribing the use of locomotive equipment pre-empted by the LIA, concluding that the broad power conferred by the LIA on the Interstate Commerce Commission (the agency then vested with authority to carry out the LIA’s requirements) was a “general  one”  that  “extends  to  the  design,  the  construction  and  the  material  of  every  part  of  the locomotive and tender and of all appurtenances.” 272 U. S., at 611.

At the Supreme Court, the petitioners did not argue that Napier should be overruled. Instead, the petitioners argued that their claims fall outside the LIA’s pre-empted field.   The Court rejected the petitioners’ various arguments, stating that Congress, in enacting the LIA, “manifest[ed] the intention to occupy  the  entire  field  of  regulating  locomotive  equipment.”  Id.   Second,  the  Court  held  that  the petitioners’ petitioners’ failure-to-warn claims were not directed at the equipment of locomotives, so they fell within the pre-empted field defined by Napier.  Third, the Court found that Napier defined the pre- empted field on the basis of the physical elements regulated, not on the basis of the entity directly subject to regulation.  Therefore, the Court rejected petitioners’ argument that the employee’s claims were not pre-empted because manufacturers were not regulated under the LIA when the employee was exposed to asbestos. Finally, contrary to petitioners’ argument, the Court held that the LIA’s pre-emptive scope is not limited to state legislation or regulation but extends to state common-law duties and standards of care directed to the subject of locomotive equipment.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion.  Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer joined.