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The Federal Hazardous Materials Transportation Act preempts state common law claims for design defects

The plaintiff-employee, a chemical unloader, was attempting to unload a railway tank car filled with sulfuric acid when its chemical contents exploded, spraying his face and chest and thereby inflicting severe burns. The employee sued under common law theories of negligence, strict liability, products liability, and breach of warranty; he alleged that the manufacturer had a duty to design its tank cars to ensure they were safe for those who unloaded them. The District Court held that the negligence, products liability, and breach of warranty claims were preempted by the Federal HMTA. It also found that although the strict liability claim was not preempted, unloading tank cars was not an abnormally dangerous activity. Plaintiff appealed.

In Roth v. Norfalco LLC, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 13119 (3rd Cir.: 6/28/11), the Third Circuit reviewed the rulings of the District Court. The Court noted that HMTA empowers the Secretary of Transportation to prescribe regulations for the safe transportation, including security, of hazardous materials in intrastate, interstate, and foreign commerce. 49 U.S.C. Section 5102(b)(1). The regulatory scheme controls the interstate movement of hazardous materials, and also controls at various stages before and after said movement. 49 C.F.R. Section 171.1(a-c). The regulations provide for various fittings, values etc. that are relevant to the issue at hand.

Section 5125(b)(1) of the HMTA contains an express preemption provision, which states that, unless authorized by another law of the United States, any law, regulation, order, or other requirement of a State, political subdivision of a State, or Indian tribe about any of the relevant subjects that is not substantively the same as a provision of the HMTA or its regulations, or of a hazardous materials transportation security regulation or directive issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, is preempted.

The plaintiff argued that the tank cars required an additional safety valve and pressure gauge on each of its tank cars to ensure the safety of those unloading the tank cars. The Court found that such a design requirement fell squarely within the subject area set forth in HMTA Section 5123(b)(1)(E) since it concerned the design of a package, container, or packaging component that was qualified for use in transporting hazardous materials in commerce. The Court also found that plaintiff's proposed design requirement would impose conditions beyond those imposed by the Hazardous Materials Regulations. Thus, the common law causes of action were preempted.