A Motor Carrier or Shipper who is engaged in the transportation of hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive material and other chemicals deemed hazardous by the United States Department of Transportation, may be able to protect themselves under the Hazardous Material Transportation Act 1 from liability in negligence or strict liability actions brought in state or federal courts. In 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided Roth v. Norfalco, LLC and held the Hazardous Material Transportation Act bars tort claims “that, if successful, would impose design requirements upon a package or container qualified for use in transporting hazardous materials in commerce.” 2 The case is an example of how some lawsuits against motor carriers an shippers could be barred under Hazardous Material Transportation Act.
The Facts of Roth v. Norfalco, LLC
In Roth, the Plaintiff had filed tort claims for negligence, products liability, breach of warranty and strict liability stemming from an incident in which his face and chest were injured after sulfuric acid sprayed into his face from a railway shipping car belonging to Defendant Norfalco, LLC.3 Plaintiff was working as an employee of paper manufacturer P.H. Glatfelter at the time of his injury and his job responsibilities were to remove chemicals from railway shipping cars that entered its facilities.4 Sulfuric acid was often among the chemicals Plaintiff would removefrom shipping cars since P.H. Glatfelter would use it in the bleaching process of wood pulp.5
Plaintiff in Roth would remove sulfuric acid from a railway shipping car by first depressurizing the air from the train car through opening a valve and uncapping an air inlet until he could no longer hear or feel air escaping from the train car.6 Once the train car was depressurized, Plaintiff would then insert an “elbow pipe” and an air pump into air inlets of the train car and shiphon sulfuric acid through a hose attached to the elbow pipe into a storage tank.7 The entire process of depressurizing and siphoning sulfuric acid from a train car usually took about two hours.8
When Plaintiff was injured, he had been having trouble depressurizing the train car with sulfuric acid and left the elbow pipe inserted into that train car for two days.9 Plaintiff was instructed to remove the elbow pipe and proceeded to do so after mistakenly believing that the train car would be completely depressurized after 2 days.10 When he removed the elbow pipe, sulfuric acid sprayed and caused burns to his face and chest.11
I. The Decision in Roth v. Norfalco, LLC
Plaintiff alleged throughout his complaint that Norfalcohad a duty to transport sulfuric acid in train cars with a safer design, stating that Norfalco could have (1) included on its train cars “a safety valve” which would “control the rate at which sulfuric acid was discharged;”12 and (2) “a pressure gauge, whose presence would have alerted [Plaintiff] of the need to depressurize the car before unloading it.”13
The Third Circuit found that Plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the Hazardous Material Transportation Act.14 In doing so, the Third Circuit reasoned that the Hazardous Material Transportation Act “preempts state common law claims that, if successful, would impose design requirements upon a package or container qualified for use in transporting hazardous materials in commerce.”15 Here, references to “preempts” or “preemption” simply means that a federal law must be enforced over state laws that may conflict or interfere with a federal law or federal interests.16
However, not all state laws or tort lawsuits are barred by preemption under the Hazardous Material Transportation Act. In determining whether a federal statute preempts state law, courts must look to whether Congress intended for there to be preemption of a particular issue in a statute.17 In Roth, the Third Circuit found only that tort lawsuits seeking to impose a design requirement on packages or containers were barred under the Hazardous Material Transportation Act.18
II. What Roth v. Norfalco, LLC Means for Motor Carrier and Shippers
A motor carrier or shipper may be able to successfully dismiss a tort claim involving hazardous materials if the plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the motor carrier or shipper owed a duty that involved instituting design requirements differing from or in addition to those imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation pursuant to the Hazardous Material Transportation Act. However, dismissal of a personal injury lawsuit does not preventthe U.S. Department of Transportation or the Department of Justice from investigating separate allegations of other violations of the Hazardous Material Transportation Act toseekcivil or criminal penalties that include fines of up to $175,000 for each violation or 5 years’ imprisonment.19 For example, once a lawsuit is dismissed for seeking to impose an additional design requirement than required pursuant to the Hazardous Material Transportation Act, a plaintiff could then notify the Department of Transportation of the defendants lacking a motor carrier safety permit20 or other violations found in the course of the lawsuit. Thereafter, the Department of Transportation could go ahead and pursue penalties against that defendant for not having a motor carrier safety permit.
A motor carrier or shipper should always double check Department of Transportation regulations and see if a state or local requirement conflicts with or impedes enforcement of a requirement pursuant to the federal Hazardous Material Transportation Act.If so, an attorney should be contacted, since it is not always clear whether federal, state or both federal and state requirements must be complied with under the Hazardous Material Transportation Act.Moreover, a motor carrier should be aware of all violations or potential violations to avoid a lawsuit or civil or criminal penalties under the Hazardous Material Transportation Act.
2 Roth v. Norfalco, LLC, 651 F.3d 367, 379 (3d Cir. 2011).
3Id. at 373.
4 Id. at 372.
7Id. at 372-373.
8 Id. at 373.
14 49 U.S.C. § 5109/et seq.
15Roth, 651 F.3d at 379.
16Id. at 374.
17 Id. at 375.
18Id. at 380.
1949 U.S.C. §§ 5123, 5124.
2049 U.S.C. § 5109.