Justice Manuel Mendez granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which was predicated on the doctrine of preemption, in the Estate ofMichael Hanley matter. In this matter, decedent worked as an electrician for the Long Island Railroad from the 1970s until approximately 2000. Prior to his passing, decedent testified that while working as a mechanic performing electrical maintenance at various train yards in the greater New York metropolitan area, he worked on “diesel haul train cars”, each of which had a diesel engine on one side to power the train’s movement, and an electrical generator on the opposite side to power lights, heating and air-conditioning. Decedent’s electrical maintenance work involved performing inspections, and working with diesel engines, motors, compressors, alternators and other electrical equipment in the light, heat and air-conditioning systems. At certain times, he also changed the metal shoes that were part of the train’s braking systems. Relevant to this decision, Mr. Hanley alleged he was exposed to asbestos through his work with the various electrical equipment manufactured by Allen-Bradley, among others, in the light, heat and air-conditioning systems.
Defendant Rockwell Automation, as successor to Allen-Bradley moved for summary judgment on the basis that all claims against it were preempted under the Federal Safety Appliance Act (49 U.S.C. §20301) and the Locomotive Inspection Act (49 U.S.C. §20701). Plaintiffs opposed the motion on the basis that Mr. Hanley’s claims were not solely based on his alleged exposure to asbestos from electrical equipment in locomotives, or from electrical equipment in other equipment in locomotives. Rather, plaintiffs’ claimed, Mr. Hanley alleged exposure to asbestos from other parts of the train, not just the locomotives, and therefore his claims were not preempted. Rockwell replied that Mr. Hanley’s alleged exposure was related only to work on locomotives, despite plaintiffs’ arguments otherwise.
Justice Mendez granted Rockwell’s motion for summary judgment. Justice Mende recognized that under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, state law (such as the tort law at issue in this case) may be preempted in three circumstances: (1) through express statutory language, (2) when it regulates conduct in a field that Congress intended the Federal government to occupy, and (3) when it actually conflicts with federal law. Turning the Locomotive Inspection Act, Justice Mendez acknowledged that the Act, as originally enacted by Congress in 1911, made it unlawful to use a locomotive unless the boiler of said locomotive and appurtenances thereof were in proper condition and safe to operate. Congress amended the Act in 1915 to apply to the entire locomotive and tender and all parts and appurtenances thereof. Prior case interpreted the Act broadly, which meant the Act regulated the entire field of locomotive equipment, including the design, construction and material of every part of the locomotive. The phrase “locomotive equipment”, in turn, was interpreted just as broadly, defined in part as “whatever in fact is an integral or essential part of a completed locomotive…” Justice Mendez noted that the scope of foregoing was so broad as to preempt claims of asbestos exposure through brake shoes in rail cars. Accordingly, Justice Mendez found that Rockwell made an unrebutted prima facie case of entitlement to summary judgment in that plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by Federal statute – despite claims to the contrary, decedent’s work with Allen-Bradley products (as opposed to other products) occurred entirely on locomotives. Plaintiffs filed to raise an issue of fact requiring a trial. While on the face of it, this decision seems limited in scope, as there are a limited number of defendants whose products are found in locomotives, perhaps the larger takeaway is that defendants should may want to consider whether there are any grounds for preemption in a given case, seeing as this defense another more “technical” defense (others include personal jurisdiction, successor liability, etc.) that Justice Mendez is receptive to.