Products Liability Law Daily Locomotive seat claims stopped by LIA preemption
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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Locomotive seat claims stopped by LIA preemption

By David Yucht, J.D.

A railroad company’s claims against the manufacturer of an allegedly defective locomotive seat seeking reimbursement for compensation it paid to a railroad employee who was injured when the seat failed were preempted by the federal Locomotive Inspection Act, a federal district court in Nebraska held (BNSF Railway Co. v. Seats, Inc., January 23, 2017, Kopf, R.).

A railroad company, BNSF Railway Company, settled a lawsuit with an employee (an engineer) who was injured by an alleged defect in his locomotive seat, which was designed, manufactured, and marketed by Seats, Inc. The engineer alleged that the backrest of his locomotive seat gave way suddenly and without warning as a result of an allegedly defective reclining mechanism, resulting in career-ending injuries to his back. According to the engineer, the seat design did not comply with the federal Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA). The railroad company sued the parts manufacturer to recover the amount of the railroad company’s settlement with the employee engineer. The manufacturer moved to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that the railroad company’s claims were preempted by the LIA.

LIA preemption. Agreeing that the railroad company’s claims were preempted, the court dismissed the complaint in its entirety. To ensure nationally uniform railroad standards, the LIA preempts the entire field of regulating locomotive equipment, including state law claims for defective design and failure to warn. The railroad company, however, argued that its claims were not preempted because they involved the LIA federal standard, and not a state law standard. The court was not impressed with this distinction because, just as with state law claims, claims based on the federal LIA standard necessarily require each court to evaluate whether certain parts comply with the LIA. The courts’ opinions likely will differ, undermining the LIA’s goal of uniformity, the reason for the preemption doctrine. Without clear federal appellate court precedent, the district court would not distinguish between state law claims and LIA federal standard of care claims in deciding whether or not this action was preempted.

Moreover, the railroad could recover only if its employee could have recovered from the manufacturer himself. If the employee’s claim was preempted, so was his employer’s claim. Because the injured employee’s claims could affect the design of locomotives, they were preempted by the LIA. Likewise, all of the railroad company’s claims were preempted as well.

The case is No. 4:16CV3121.

Attorneys: Andrew D. Weeks (Sattler Bogen Law Firm) for BNSF Railway Co. Anthony P. Steinike (Quarles Brady Law Firm) for Seats, Inc.

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