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Corporate Court hears argument in food safety and railroad safety cases

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear argument in two cases in which corporate defendants are attempting to avoid liability by arguing that state safety laws are preempted by federal law. At stake in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp. is the ability of individuals to hold railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety regulations that are more protective than federal safety standards. At stake in National Meat Association v. Harris is the ability of states to enact laws designed to protect the food supply when federal regulations do not provide that protection.

In Kurns, the daughter of a deceased railroad worker is suing railroad parts manufacturers on behalf of her father who died as a result of contracting malignant mesolthelioma, the only generally accepted cause of which is asbestos exposure. Defendants admittedly manufactured products which contained asbestos and failed to provide specific product warnings which are required under state law. Federal railroad regulations are silent as to warnings for products containing asbestos. Defendants claim that federal railroad regulations control the entire field of regulation with regard to railroad parts manufacture and use, and therefore any state law which imposes additional requirements is preempted.

The District Court and Court of Appeals in the Third Circuit both granted defendants summary judgment on the theory of implied field preemption, holding that the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”) is the controlling law in the field of railroad safety regulations and effectively preempts any product liability claims based in state law.

However, states have historically shared the responsibility for railroad regulation and the Federal Railway Safety Act, in fact, allows states to continue in force any regulation relating to railroad safety until a federal law is enacted which concerns the same issue. Here, the LIA is silent as to product warnings for those products containing asbestos. Therefore, the state regulation which relates to this issue should be enforceable.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower courts’ decision in favor of the defendants it will prevent injured citizens from holding railroad manufacturers responsible for violating state safety regulations, many of which speak to local safety hazards and provide more stringent protections which are not afforded by federal laws.

In National Meat, a trade association is suing to enjoin a California state law passed in response to shocking footage recorded in a slaughterhouse.

In January 2008, the Humane Society released undercover video depicting sick and disabled cows (“downer” or “non-ambulatory” animals) being beaten, kicked, shocked, and dragged by forklifts and chains on their way to slaughter. In addition to raising concerns about animal welfare, the video inspired grave concerns about the safety of the food supply. Downer animals are much more susceptible to contracting and passing on the E. coli virus, mad cow disease, and salmonella, all of which pose severe health threats to humans. In fact, it later emerged that meat from those same animals had been processed and sold, leading to the largest beef product recall in United States history.

The California State Legislature subsequently amended existing California laws governing slaughterhouses, to prohibit purchasing, selling, receiving, processing, or butchering of “nonambulatory” or “downer” pigs, sheep, goats or cattle, and requiring that such animals be immediately and humanely euthanized.

The National Meat Association (the “Association”) sued to enjoin the law, arguing that it was preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (the “FMIA”). The FMIA was enacted to protect the health of consumers by ensuring that meat for human consumption is wholesome and not adulterated. It sets forth inspection and examination requirements for animals that are intended to be slaughtered for human consumption, including downer animals. The Association argues that provisions of the California law that address slaughterhouse “operations,” are “within the scope” of the FMIA, but “in addition to, or different than” FMIA requirements, and therefore are preempted by the FMIA.

California argues that the state law disqualifies downer animals from being slaughtered for the purpose of human food production. Because downer animals effectively never become part of the slaughterhouse “operations” of human food production, the law is not preempted by the FMIA, which only regulates the processing of animals that are destined for human consumption.

The district court granted the Association’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the California law was preempted by the FMIA, both expressly and by implication. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

If the Supreme Court rules against California, states will be severely constrained in their ability to protect their residents from the dangers of a contaminated food supply.

These two cases have the potential to be additional examples of the Corporate Court using federal preemption to protect corporate interests and prevent states from protecting public safety.