Railroad Friction Products Corp. dismissed from asbestos suit; Robreno rules claims preempted by Locomotive Inspection Act

By Jon Campisi | Dec 9, 2013

A federal judge in Philadelphia has dismissed Railroad Friction Products

Corp. from an asbestos suit brought by a deceased laborer’s widow, ruling that the defendant was correct to assert that the plaintiff’s claims are preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act.

Alice Perry had argued in court papers that the LIA does not preempt her claims because the brake shoes that her late husband, George Perry, was exposed to were not found on a locomotive.

The woman alleges that her late spouse had developed asbestos-related injuries while installing and removing Railroad Friction Products Corp. manufactured brake shoes that were located on various types of railcars.

The sole issue in the case, according to U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, was whether the Locomotive Inspection Act preempted Perry’s state law claims, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., which Robreno said affirmed the “breadth of the long-standing field preemption of the LIA.”

In Perry’s case, Robreno wrote, the issue was whether the LIA’s broad preemptive scope covered the woman’s claims relating to her late husband’s exposure to brake shoes located on railcars, and not on locomotives.

Robreno determined that the LIA preempts the plaintiff’s claims because the railcar brake shoes are a “part or appurtenance” of the locomotive.

In Kurns, the jurist wrote, the high court reaffirmed the 85-year-old decision of Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line, which held that state requirements of certain safety equipment on railroads were preempted by the LIA.

In the Kurns litigation, the plaintiff brought state law claims of defective design and failure to warn, alleging that his exposure to asbestos-containing products led to him developing mesothelioma, the record shows.

The man’s wife in that case pursued the litigation following her husband’s passing.

In Kurns, the plaintiffs had argued that the LIA didn’t preempt their state law claims since the Federal Railroad Safety Act limited the scope of field preemption as defined by Napier.

The courts, however, determined that while there is a preemption provision in FRSA that says a state may “adopt or continue in force” a rule or regulation related to railroad safety until the secretary of transportation issues a rule or order covering the subject matter of the state requirement, the provision does not limit the field preemption prescribed in Napier.

The FRSA, the courts ruled, is a “gap-filler” statute, which “leaves existing statutes intact … and authorizes the Secretary to fill interstitial areas of railroad safety with supplemental regulation,” Robreno’s memorandum notes.

The FRSA, therefore, had no effect on the scope of preemption as defined by Napier, Robreno noted.

Robreno also pointed out that in Kurns, the court rejected each argument by the plaintiffs in support of their contention that their state law claims were outside of the field that Napier found to be preempted by federal law.

One example given was the plaintiffs’ argument that sought to draw a distinction between the use of locomotives and locomotive equipment on the railroad line versus the repair and maintenance of such equipment off the line.

The plaintiffs in that case had argued that LIA preemption extended only to the use of locomotives and equipment while trains were in use, but didn’t extend to the repair and maintenance of locomotives in facilities dedicated to such repair and maintenance.

“The Court rejected this ‘attempt to redefine the pre-empted field,’” Robreno wrote. “The petitioners’ state law claims were ‘aimed at the equipment of locomotives[,]’ and thus were ‘directed to the same subject’ as the LIA, and therefore ‘Napier dictates they fall within the pre-empted field.’”

In the Perry case, the plaintiff argued that the asbestos containing brake shoes located on railcars don’t fall into the category of a locomotive part or appurtenance, while the defendant asserted that the purported “railcar distinction” that Perry asserted was without merit.

“What is a ‘part or appurtenance’ under the LIA has been judicially defined by several courts,” Robreno wrote. “The Supreme Court defined the scope of ‘every part of the locomotive and tender and of all appurtenances’ as ‘whatever in fact is an integral or essential part of a completed locomotive, and all parts or attachments definitely prescribed by lawful order’ of the Secretary.”

Robreno also noted that the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that asbestos insulation on locomotive boilers and brakes “undoubtedly” fell into the category of parts and appurtenances.

In the present case, Robreno wrote that there is no doubt Perry’s claims are preempted by the LIA.

“Even though the asbestos-containing products to which Plaintiff alleges Decedent was exposed were on railcars rather than on locomotives, such products are covered by the broad scope of LIA preemption,” Robreno wrote.

The judge went on to write that it would lead to an “absurd result” if state law claims pertaining to locomotive brake shoes were preempted by federal law, but claims relating to the same exact parts that were connected to the railcars were not. “Uniformity is a primary goal of federal railroad regulation,” Robreno wrote.

“And, just as it would be difficult to ensure that a self-propelled locomotive could meet each state’s laws, it also would be difficult to ensure that a railcar that is not self-propelled but that travels across state lines as frequently as the locomotive pulling it could meet each state’s restrictions.”

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