Supreme Court rules for rail suppliers in asbestos case

Written by Douglas John Bowen

In a case involving asbestos exposure in railroad repair work, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the Locomotive Inspection Act, as interpreted in 1923, preempts subsequent state laws with respect to worker exposure to brake shoes and insulation containing asbestos.

The court was divided, 6 to 3, on whether defendant Railroad Friction Products Corp. and Viad Corp. should have alerted a machinist of the danger in handing products containing asbestos.

Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion and summed up the case:

“George Corson was employed as a welder and machinist by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad from 1947 until 1974. Corson worked in locomotive repair and maintenance facilities, where his duties included installing brake shoes on locomotives and stripping insulation from locomotive boilers. In 2005, Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.

“In 2007, Corson and his wife filed suit in Pennsylvania state court against 59 defendants, including respondents Railroad Friction Products Corporation (RFPC) and Viad Corp (Viad). According to the complaint, RFPC distributed locomotive brake shoes containing asbestos, and Viad was the successor-in-interest to a company that manufactured and sold locomotives and locomotive engine valves containing asbestos. Corson alleged that he handled this equipment and that he was injured by exposure to asbestos.

“The complaint asserted state-law claims that the equipment was defectively designed because it contained asbestos, and that respondents failed to warn of the dangers of asbestos or to provide instructions regarding its safe use. After the complaint was filed, Corson passed away.

“Respondents removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and moved for summary judgment. Respondents argued that petitioners’ state-law claims were pre-empted by the LIA. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment for respondents. The Third Circuit affirmed.”

The Supreme Court accepted an appeal and issued its decision Feb. 29.