Roth v. Norfalco, No. 10-2524 (3d Cir. June 28, 2011)
While unloading a Norfalco railway tank car, Roth, a paper mill employee, was severely burned by a sulfuric acid explosion.
Invoking diversity jurisdiction, Roth sued Norfalco for negligence, strict liability, products liability, and breach of warranty in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Finding that Roth’s strict liability claim failed because unloading sulfuric acid from a tank car is not an “abnormally dangerous activity,” and that his other claims were expressly preempted by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, the district court granted summary judgment for Norfalco. Roth appealed this decision to the Third Circuit.
Because a grant of summary judgment and statutory interpretation are questions of law, the Third Circuit exercised a de novo standard of review.
The Court pointed out that the basis of Roth’s claims was that Norfalco had a common law duty to design a safer tank car, and design requirements on hazardous materials containers are within the exclusive domain of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.
The Court looked to the preemption provision of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act and specifically to 49 U.S.C. § 5125 (b)(1)(E), the last of the five listed subject areas:
[U]nless authorized by another law of the United States, a law, regulation, order, or other requirement of a State, political subdivision of a State, or Indian tribe about any of the following subjects, that is not substantively the same as a provision of this chapter, a regulation prescribed under this chapter, or a hazardous materials transportation security regulation or directive issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, is preempted.
[T]he designing, manufacturing, fabricating, inspecting, marking, maintaining, reconditioning, repairing, or testing a package, container, or packaging component that is represented, marked, certified, or sold as qualified for use in transporting hazardous material in commerce.
It concluded that if Roth were successful in his claims, then he essentially would be imposing a non-federal design requirement on Norfalco to install additional safety features on its tank cars, which is “not substantively the same” as conditions imposed by federal regulations.
In affirming the district court’s order, the Third Circuit expanded the district court’s conclusion and found that all of Roth’s state common law claims were expressly preempted by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.