In Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., 132 S. Ct. 1261 (Feb. 29, 2012), a welder and machinist for a railroad carrier, whose duties included installing brakeshoes on locomotives and stripping insulation from locomotive boilers, alleged he developed malignant mesothelioma thirty years after his retirement from asbestos in the locomotive parts. He and his wife sued fifty-nine distributors of the parts in Pennsylvania state court alleging that they were defectively designed and defendants had failed to warn of the dangers of asbestos or provide instructions regarding its safe use. Following dismissal of fifty-seven defendants, the remaining two – a brakeshoe distributor and the successor to an engine valve manufacturer – removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq. The district court granted defendants’ motion, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the preemption issue.

In 1915, Congress enacted the LIA, which provided that “a railroad carrier may use or allow to be used a locomotive or tender on its railroad line only when the locomotive or tender and its parts and appurtenances: (1) are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury; (2) have been inspected as required [by the LIA and regulations thereunder]; and (3) can withstand every test prescribed by the Secretary [of Transportation] under [the LIA].” In Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U.S. 605 (1926), the Supreme Court held that the LIA preempted the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment, including “the design, the construction and the material of every part of the locomotive and tender and of all appurtenances.” In 1970, Congress enacted the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), which granted the Secretary of Transportation broad authority to prescribe regulations and issue orders supplementing existing railroad safety laws and regulations. The FRSA included an explicit preemption provision, which provided in part that “[a] State may adopt or continue in force a law, regulation, or order related to railroad safety [only] . . . until the Secretary of Transportation . . . prescribes a regulation or issues an order covering the subject matter of the State requirement.”

Plaintiffs advanced two arguments supporting their contention that state law claims relating to the use of asbestos in locomotive equipment were not within the LIA’s preempted field. First, plaintiffs contended Napier no longer defines the preempted field because it was narrowed by the later FRSA. The Court rejected that argument, however, because the FRSA did not alter or supplant pre-existing federal statutes or regulations addressing railroad safety, such as the LIA, but instead supplemented them. Second, plaintiffs argued their claims were not preempted even under Napier because: (1) the claims arose out of the repair and maintenance of locomotives, rather than their “use on [a] railroad line”; (2) even if defective design claims were preempted, failure-to-warn claims were not because they are not based on “the design, the construction [or] the material” of locomotive parts; (3) at the time plaintiff was exposed to asbestos, the LIA only regulated railroads, not manufacturers; and (4) the LIA’s preemptive scope does not extend to state common law claims, only legislation or regulations.

The Court rejected each of these arguments as contrary to the field preemption recognized in Napier – i.e., “the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment.” First, Napier’s description of the preempted field made no distinction between hazards arising from repair or maintenance and those arising from use on the line. Second, the gravamen of the failure-towarn claims still was directed at locomotive equipment – i.e., that plaintiff suffered injury from exposure to asbestos in that equipment. Plaintiffs’ third argument was inconsistent not only with Napier – which defined the preempted field on the basis of the physical elements regulated, not the entities subject to regulation – but common sense. The Court noted that, while plaintiffs’ proposed rule would allow a state to impose locomotive part requirements on manufacturers but not railroads, “a railroad’s ability to equip its fleet of locomotives in compliance with federal standards is meaningless if manufacturers are not allowed to produce locomotives and locomotive parts that meet those standards.” Finally, the categorical field preemption established by Napier covered all state law requirements, and made no exception for common law duties.