Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

U.S. Supreme Court rules that federal rail laws preempt state asbestos tort lawsuits

Term: 2011 Term
Oral Argument Date: Nov 9, 2011
Vote: 6-3
Opinion: Thomas
Questions Presented: 

Did Congress intend the Federal Railroad Safety Acts to preempt state law-based tort lawsuits?

U.S. Chamber's Position: 

The U.S. Chamber urged the Supreme Court to re-affirm 85 years of settled law that Congress preempted the field of locomotive equipment safety, and to reject the plaintiffs’ request that the Court carve out an exception to field preemption for tort lawsuits. In this case, the estate of a deceased rail worker sued a railroad parts manufacturer for allegedly exposing the worker to asbestos. Relying on 85 years of Supreme Court precedent holding that Congress had preempted the entire field of locomotive equipment regulation, both the district court and the Third Circuit rejected the tort claims as barred by the Locomotive Inspection Act. In its amicus brief, the Chamber argued that there is no basis in law or logic for an exception to the doctrine of field preemption for tort lawsuits. The Chamber explained that tort lawsuits are often the most unpredictable and disruptive form of interference with uniform federal regulation. Absent express statutory language to the contrary, courts should not presume that statutes intended to preempt an entire field were simultaneously intended to stop just short of preempting lawsuits that would subject defendants to divergent tort liability in each of the fifty States.

Outcome Content: 

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs' state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims fall within the field of locomotive equipment regulation pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act. 

Justices in Minority: 
Procedural History: 

Cert. granted 6/6/11. Chamber amicus brief filed 10/11/11. Decided 2/29/12.