Do Federal Laws Governing Railroad Safety Preempt State Law Tort Claims Alleging Injuries Caused By Locomotive Manufacturer?

The Supreme Court of the United States recently heard oral argument in a case to decide the issue of whether federal laws governing railroad safety prohibit state-law based lawsuits for personal injuries against manufacturers of locomotive parts.
In Kurns v. A.W. Chesterton Inc., et. al., plaintiffs, Frieda Corson and Gloria Kurns, brought suit on behalf of George M. Corson (the “decedent”) as the widow and executor of his estate, respectively. Mr. Corson was employed by defendant railroads for 47 years. His job included removing insulation from locomotive boilers and putting brake shoes on the locomotives. Plaintiffs claimed that during decedent’s employment with defendant railroads he was continuously exposed to asbestos. Mr. Corson developed malignant mesothelioma after retiring from the railroad. He later died. Plaintiffs sued the manufacturing defendants under state products liability law alleging that decedent developed mesothelioma as a result of being exposed to asbestos- containing products while employed by the railroads.
The defendants, who allegedly used asbestos in the parts for locomotives, argued that the plaintiffs’ claims against them should be dismissed because the federal law known as the Locomotive Inspection Act governs the entire field of safety of locomotives, locomotive components and locomotive parts. They argued that the need for uniformity in laws related to locomotive components outweighs individual states’ laws regarding product safety.
The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended for the Locomotive Inspection Act to preempt completely the field of railroad safety, including whether the locomotive components which are the subject of the plaintiffs’ product liability action fall within that categories enumerated in the statute.
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