The The Supreme Court Decision in KURNS, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CORSON, DECEASED, ET AL. v. RAILROAD FRICTION PRODUCTS CORP. ET AL. handed down on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 will PUT ON THE BRAKES for railroad workers, who contracted an asbestos related disease, from seeking justice in the courthouse against manufacturers of harmful asbestos containing products. The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit’s holding that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) preempts plaintiffs’ state tort law claims for design defects and failure to warn.
What is somewhat disconcerting is that the opinion was delivered by Justice Thomas who in the past has defended the state’s rights to regulate against any implied federal preemption. This was not seen as keeping in line with Thomas’ prior stand on federal vs. state preemption. Justice Kagan wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Sotomayor wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, which Justices Breyer and Ginsburg joined.
In spite of the disappointing ruling, railroad workers can still file a lawsuit involving asbestos injury claims under the Federal Employees Liability Act. FELA allows workers to file suit against employers instead of the asbestos manufacturers. Because indemnity claims (claims that the manufacturers are liable) would be state law based, the railroads will possess no indemnity or contribution rights against such entities either. Any attempt by the Railroads to bring the asbestos manufacturers in under the ruling handed down in Ayers will be subject to dismissal, as federally preempted by this decision. Additionally, FELA cases may now take the position that the LIA now provides coverage and rights for locomotives that are “not in use” as previously held by this Court. It has not yet been determined how this will effect claims filed against asbestos manufacturers through the bankruptcy courts.
When a victim of an asbestos related disease such as mesothelioma files a personal injury lawsuit, it will likely allege that the manufacturer of asbestos products knew the dangers associated with the use of the mineral and, without regard for the safety of the end user of the product, continued to manufacture the same. This decision will allow these companies to escape liability in railroad cases.
From the standpoint of workers, this decision exemplifies the value of voting for a President. When casting their ballot, an individual must take into account that one of the most intriguing and important ways in which ordinary workers may be affected by the Office of the President, is through appointments to the Supreme Court.
The Alliance for Justice summarized the situation perfectly:
“By upholding the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the corporate defendants, the Supreme Court is preventing injured citizens from holding railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety laws and regulations, many of which speak to local safety hazards and provide more stringent protections than those afforded by federal laws. Once again the Corporate Court has used federal preemption to protect corporate interests and prevent states from protecting public safety.”