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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal Law Doesn’t Give Room for Asbestos Suit

(CN) - A railroad company does not have to face asbestos claims related to a man who died from mesothelioma, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, finding that federal law pre-empts the suit.

George Corson spent nearly 30 years, from 1947 to 1974, removing insulation from train boilers and installing brake shoes.

In 2007, two years after being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, Corson and his wife, Freida Jung Corson, filed suit in a Pennsylvania state court against 59 defendants.

Corson died, leaving his widow and Gloria Gail Kurns, the executrix of his estate, to pursue the claims.

After removing the case to Pennsylvania's Eastern District, 57 defendants successfully tossed the charges against them by arguing that there was insufficient evidence linking their products to Corson's asbestos exposure.

The 3rd Circuit affirmed after dismissal of the final two defendants, brake-pad manufacturer Railroad Friction Products and Viad Corp., the successor in interest to a company that manufactured engine valves.

Concluding that the federal Locomotive Inspection Act did indeed pre-empt state-law tort claims for defective design and failure to warn, a majority of the Supreme Court affirmed Wednesday.

Justice Clarence Thomas authored the court's opinion, which categorically rejected attempts to define the claims outside of the law's pre-empted field. Ultimately, court precedent decided in 1926 with Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. seals the case's fate, according to the six-justice majority.

Justice Elena Kagan, who joined Thomas' opinion, wrote separately to express her doubt that the court would decide Napier "in the same way today."

"Under our more recent cases, Congress must do much more to oust all of state law from a field," the three-page opinion states, noting that the Napier court found federal authority existed over locomotive equipment regulation "based on nothing more than a statute."

The three justices who did not join the majority represented a partial dissent that said the court should have revived failure-to-warn claims.

"In my view, the latter escape pre-emption because they impose no state-law requirements in the field reserved for federal regulation: 'the equipment of locomotives,'" according to the opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

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