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Opinion analysis: The Court goes back to school

It is not often that the Supreme Court becomes entangled in tort matters normally reserved for hypotheticals on first-year law school exams. But yesterday, in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products, among a flurry of citations to the Restatement of Torts, the Court sparred over the “gravamen” of a failure-to-warn products liability cause of action. Once that key issue was decided, the Court had little difficulty finding that a widow’s state-law claims against the manufacturers and distributors of locomotive products containing the asbestos that caused her husband’s death were preempted by federal law.


This case arises out of the death of George Corson, who worked for nearly thirty years as a machinist repairing locomotives in a railroad maintenance facility. During that time, he was routinely exposed to asbestos dust, and in 2005 he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a disease for which the only known cause is exposure to asbestos. He died two years later.

Before his death, Mr. Corson and his wife filed suit in a Pennsylvania state court, raising several state-law tort claims against the manufacturers and distributors of the asbestos-containing locomotive products. The complaint contained several tort theories, including that the products were defective in design and that they failed to provide adequate warnings regarding the dangers of asbestos.

The defendants removed the case to federal court, where they argued that the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) foreclosed all state-law tort claims under field preemption principles. The district court agreed, and the Third Circuit affirmed, invoking the Supreme Court’s holding in Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., that the Boiler Inspection Act (the precursor to the LIA) occupied the field of locomotive regulation.

Freida Corson, George’s widow, and Gloria Kurns, the executrix of his estate, then filed a petition for certiorari, which the Court granted last summer.

The Court’s opinion

As an initial matter, the Court noted that petitioners had not asked the Court to overturn Napier; moreover, that eighty-five-year-old decision should be accorded the presumption of stare decisis. Thus, the Court embarked on a straightforward application of precedent.

The Court first held that Napier defined the field covered by the LIA to include “the design, the construction, and the material of every part of the locomotive and tender of all appurtenances.” After defining the scope of the field, the Court held that any state-law design-defect claim would conflict with the LIA because it is “aimed at the equipment of locomotives.” In addressing the failure-to-warn claim, the Court concluded that it was similarly preempted because the “gravamen” of such a claim is also directed towards the equipment of locomotives rather than merely the absence of warnings, standing alone.

Justice Kagan filed a short concurring opinion in which she expressed her agreement with the Court’s conclusion that, under Napier, petitioners’ claims were preempted.  However, she voiced doubts about Napier itself, characterizing the case as an “anachronism” when “[v]iewed through the lens of modern preemption law.”

Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, concurring in part and dissenting in part.  Although she agreed with Justice Kagan that the Court might have decided Napier in a different way today, and she agreed with the rest of the Court  that petitioners’ design-defect claim was preempted, she would have allowed petitioners to maintain their failure-to-warn claim.  Key to that belief was her disagreement with the majority over the fundamental nature of a failure-to-warn products liability cause of action. Citing the Restatement of Torts, Justice Sotomayor characterized failure-to-warn claims as “conceptually distinct[]” from design defect claims:  the former are only “tangentially” related to locomotive equipment. Because such a claim, if successful, “would have no necessary effect on the physical equipment of locomotives at all,” Justice Sotomayor would have held that Congress had not preempted petitioners’ state-law failure-to-warn claim.

Recommended Citation: Shon Hopwood, Opinion analysis: The Court goes back to school, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 1, 2012, 1:07 PM),