Railroad workers filing liability claims over illnesses and injuries sustained from asbestos exposure may have a more difficult time after a surprise ruling this week by the United States Supreme Court.
In a decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court ruled by a 6-3 vote that a federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) dating back to 1915 preempted the state law tort claim that was filed in Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court ruling attempts to narrow the territory under which victims of asbestos exposure in the railroad industry can bring legal action under state laws.
The ruling stemmed from a case originally brought by George Corson, who spent 30 years in the railroad industry as a welder and machinist. Working for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, he installed brake shoes and stripped insulation from locomotives.
After retirement, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. In 2007, he and his wife filed a claim in state court against 59 defendants, including Railroad Friction Products Corporation and Viad Corp, which made and sold the brake shoes and engine valves, respectively, containing asbestos with which Corson worked.
Corson died from the cancer shortly after he case was filed, leaving family members to pursue it.
Like many asbestos claims, his was based on defective design of the products and a failure to provide the proper warnings, based on the knowledge that the asbestos product was toxic.
The Court’s ruling this week was based on a preemption principle, which determined there was a federal statute by virtue of the railroad’s operation, that permitted the use of asbestos, which effectively barred the typical state-law claims.
The case came from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which had affirmed an earlier decision that the LIA preempted any state-law claims.
Although the Supreme Court ruling applied only to the railroad industry, and cited a previous case from 1926, there is some concern by victims advocacy groups that those in the asbestos industry now will push to expand the ruling to cover other asbestos products in other industries.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was used extensively by industrial companies throughout the United States for much of the 20th century, coveted for its heat resistance and versatility. The use declined dramatically in recent decades when its toxic nature became more well known.
Critics of the Court ruling this week contend that state regulations are meant to protect workers from injuries caused on the job, and that the original federal LIA in 1915 was meant only protect to them from accidental injury in the operation of the trains.
Despite the ruling this week, liability claims directly against the railroad companies which are guilty of negligence remain viable under the Federal Employees Liability Act.