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Court: federal law preempts railroad asbestos claims

Late last month, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act preempts any claims under state law made by former railroad workers who were exposed to asbestos during their employment.

As a result of the ruling, railroad workers who had been negligently exposed to asbestos-containing brakes and insulation at railroad maintenance facilities will not be able to name private companies that design and manufacture those products in asbestos lawsuits under state law.

Specifically, the court was unanimous in its finding that the 1911 Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) preempts state law claims that the products were defectively designed. Three of the nine justices did not agree with the majority ruling regarding claims that the manufacturers failed to warn workers of the dangers of asbestos. The majority found that such failure-to-warn claims are also preempted by the LIA.

The court based its ruling on a 1926 interpretation of the LIA, in which the Supreme Court held that Congress' intent in enacting the act was to "occupy the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment." The court further reasoned that the 1926 court "did not distinguish between hazards arising from repair and maintenance as opposed to those arising from use on the line."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan implied that she did not necessarily agree with the decision, but stated that it was up to Congress to change the law if the law should be changed. "[The 1926 decision] governs so long as Congress lets it," she said.

We previously wrote about the Supreme Court challenge to the LIA, which you can read about in our earlier mesothelioma blog post.

Source: Bloomberg BNA, "Supreme Court Says Railroad Law Preempts Claims on Asbestos Exposure in Repair Work," Martina S. Barash, Mar. 1, 2012

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