Alert: U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Vitality of Field Preemption as a Defense to Common Law Tort Claims

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February 29, 2012

Today, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the vitality of field preemption as a defense to common law tort claims. Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products, Inc., No. 10–879, slip op. (U.S. Feb. 29, 2012). The high court’s holding is in accord with arguments presented by Briggs and Morgan attorneys Diane Bratvold, Kevin Decker and Jonathan Schmidt on behalf of DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar (DRI) as an amicus curiae.

Kurns involved a lawsuit by a railroad employee seeking to recover damages for alleged exposure to asbestos in locomotives and locomotive parts. The District Court granted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, summary judgment for the defendants on the ground that the state-law claims were preempted by the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U. S. C. §20701 et seq.

At the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs urged the justices to narrow the high court’s field preemption jurisprudence, which supplies a defense to common law claims. See Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 272 U. S. 605 (1926). Plaintiffs argued that the tort claims at issue fell outside the preempted field contemplated by Napier, but the high court held that Napier’s “categorical conclusion admits of no exception for state common-law duties and standards of care.”

Briggs argued on behalf of DRI that the broad scope of field preemption was both well-founded in the law and well-intended in defending the supremacy of federal authority. Field preemption has been long recognized in some of the country’s oldest and most important industries, e.g., railroads, shipping, and banking. Precluding the reasonable reliance of such businesses upon the uniformity and consistency of federal regulation could expose these vital and inherently interstate enterprises to a myriad of different common law standards, the threat of potentially-debilitating tort liability and, perhaps more importantly, tremendous market uncertainty.

Kurns preserves the legal framework by which so many businesses operate and defend themselves in the courts. There is no doubt that challenges in the same vein as those pursued by the Kurns plaintiffs will continue to be a fixture in the judicial and legislative halls for years to come.