Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., No. 10-879; U.S. Supreme Court; opinion by Thomas, J.; concurrence by Kagan, J.; partial dissent by Sotomayor, J.; decided February 29, 2012. On certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
George Corson worked as a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier. After retirement, Corson was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He and his wife, a petitioner here, sued respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp. in state court, claiming injury from Corson’s exposure to asbestos in locomotives and locomotive parts distributed by respondents. The Corsons alleged state-law claims of defective design and failure to warn of the dangers posed by asbestos. After Corson died, petitioner Kurns, executrix of his estate, was substituted as a party. Respondents removed the case to the Federal District Court, which granted them summary judgment, ruling that the state-law claims were pre-empted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq. The Third Circuit affirmed.
Held: Petitioners’ state-law design-defect and failure-to-warn claims fall within the field of locomotive equipment regulation pre-empted by the LIA, as that field was defined in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. , 272 U.S. 605. Pp. 2-11.
(a) The LIA provides that a railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts or appurtenances are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury, have been inspected as required by the LIA and regulations prescribed thereunder by the secretary of the Department of Transportation, and can withstand every test prescribed under the LIA by the secretary. See § 20701. Pp. 2-3.
(b) Congress may expressly pre-empt state law. But even without an express pre-emption provision, state law must yield to a congressional act to the extent of any conflict with a federal statute, see Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council , 530 U.S. 363, 372, or when the federal statute’s scope indicates that Congress intended federal law to occupy a field exclusively, see Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick , 514 U.S. 280, 287. This case involves only the latter, so-called “field pre-emption.” Pp. 3-4.
(c) In Napier , this 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.” See 272 U.S. at 611. The Court rejected the states’ contention that the scope of the pre-empted field was to “be determined by the object sought through legislation, rather than the physical elements affected by it,” id. at 612, and found it dispositive that “[t]he federal and state statutes are directed to the same subject — the equipment of locomotives.” Ibid. Pp. 4-5.
(d) The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA) did not alter the LIA’s pre-emptive scope. By its terms, the FRSA — which instructs that “[t]he Secretary of Transportation … shall prescribe regulations and issue orders for every area of railroad safety supplementing laws and regulations in effect on October 16, 1970,” 49 U.S.C. § 20103(a) — does not alter pre-existing federal railroad safety statutes. Rather, it leaves those statutes intact and authorizes the secretary to fill interstitial areas of railroad safety with supplemental regulation. Because the LIA was already in effect when the FRSA was enacted, the FRSA left the LIA, and its pre-emptive scope as defined by Napier , intact. P. 6.
(e) Petitioners do not argue that Napier should be overruled. Instead, petitioners contend that their claims fall outside the LIA’s pre-empted field, as it was defined in Napier . Petitioners’ arguments are unpersuasive. First, the argument that the pre-empted field does not extend to state-law claims arising from the repair or maintenance of locomotives is inconsistent with Napier ‘s holding that Congress, in enacting the LIA, “manifest[ed] the intention to occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment.” See 272 U.S. at 611. Second, the argument that petitioners’ failure-to-warn claims are not pre-empted because they do not base liability on the design or manufacture of a product ignores that a failure-to-warn claim alleges that the product itself is defective unless accompanied by sufficient warnings or instructions. Because petitioners’ failure-to-warn claims are therefore directed at the equipment of locomotives, they fall within the pre-empted field defined by Napier . Third, the argument that petitioners’ claims are not pre-empted because manufacturers were not regulated under the LIA when Corson was exposed to asbestos is inconsistent with Napier , which defined the pre-empted field on the basis of the physical elements regulated, not on the basis of the entity directly subject to regulation. Finally, contrary to petitioners’ argument, 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. Pp. 6-11.
620 F.3d 392, affirmed.