Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

PETITIONER: Gloria Gail Kurns, Executrix of the Estate of George M. Corson, Deceased, et al.
RESPONDENT: Railroad Friction Products Corporation, et al.
LOCATION: U.S. Congress

DOCKET NO.: 10-879
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 06, 2011
ARGUED: Nov 09, 2011
DECIDED: Feb 29, 2012

David C. Frederick - for the petitioners
Jonathan Hacker - for the respondents
Sarah E. Harrington - Assistant to the Solicitor Gen­eral, Department of Justice, for United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners

Facts of the case

Gloria Gail Kurns and Freida E. Jung Corson brought suit on behalf of the decedent, George M. Corson, asserting a number of state law causes of action related to his alleged exposure to asbestos during his years employed by a railroad company. From 1947 to 1994, George M. Corson worked as a welder, machinist, and supervisor for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific Railroad. He was employed at different facilities in Montana and South Dakota. Much of his job involved removing insulation from locomotive boilers and putting brake shoes on the locomotives.

Kurns, the executor of his state, and Jung Corson, the widow, claim that throughout this time period, George Corson was repeatedly exposed to asbestos from the insulation and the brake shoes. After his retirement, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, the only known cause of which is exposure to asbestos. He passed away after the initiation of this litigation, and is represented by both Kurns and Jung Corson. Together they brought claims against multiple defendants including, the Railroad Friction Products Corp. over brake pads they manufactured containing asbestos.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania rejected the claims, contending that they were barred by the Locomotive Inspection Act, which provides that a railroad carrier may only use a locomotive that is in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.


Did Congress intend the federal railroad safety acts to preempt state-law-based tort lawsuits?

Media for Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 2011 in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 29, 2012 in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 10-879, Kurns versus Railroad Friction Products Corporation.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

George Corson worked as a welder and a machinist in loco in the locomotive repair and maintenance facilities.

His duties included installing brake shoes and locomotives -- on locomotives and stripping insulation from locomotive boilers.

Corson was diagnosed with cancer following his retirement.

Corson and his wife filed suit in Pennsylvania State Court against various defendants, including respondents here, alleging that Corson was injured as a result of exposure to asbestos during the course of his employment.

According to the complaint, respondents' manufactured or distributed locomotive parts containing asbestos that were handled by Corson.

The complaint asserted state law claims that respondents' products were defectively designed and that respondents failed to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos.

Corson passed away after the complaint was filed and Gloria Kurns, the executrix of the estate, was substituted as a party.

She is the petitioner here along with Corson's widow.

Respondents removed the case to federal court.

The District Court granted summary judgment to respondents, holding that petitioner's state law claims were preempted by the Federal Locomotive Inspection Act.

The Third Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed today with the clerk, we also affirm.

The Locomotive Inspection Act is silent as to its preemptive effect, but this Court held in Napier versus Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company that the Act manifest an intention to occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment.

Petitioners do -- and ask us to overrule Napier and we find that Napier compels the conclusion that petitioner's tort claims were preempted.

We first reject petitioner's claim that a subsequently enacted statute, the Federal Railroad Safety Act narrowed the Locomotive Inspection Act's preemptive scope.

The Railroad Safety Act leaves preexisting statutes like the Locomotive Inspection Act intact.

We, therefore, conclude that the Railroad Safety Act left the preemptive reach of the Locomotive Inspection Act in place.

Petitioners -- petitioners alternatively contend that their claims do not fall within Napier's definition of the field preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act.

They argue that the state law claims arising from the repair or maintenance of locomotives as opposed to claims arising from the use of locomotives on the railway do not fall within the preempted field.

That argument is inconsistent with Napier's holding that Congress “Manifested the intention to occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment.”

Napier did not distinguish between hazards arising from repair and those arising from use on the line.

We are also unpersuaded by petitioners' argument that their failure to warn claims do not fall within the preempted field.

A failure to warn claim alleges that a product itself is unlawfully dangerous unless accompanied by warnings or instructions deemed sufficient by a state law.

Petitioners' failure to warn claims are therefore directed at the equipment of locomotives and fall within the preempted field.

For these reasons and other reasons discussed in our opinion, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Kagan has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Sotomayor has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer join.