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From Products Liability Law Daily, May 7, 2013

Auto Transport Rig Driver’s Product Liability Claims Not Preempted by Labor Management Relations Act

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) did not preempt an over-the-road-truck driver’s state law product liability claims against the manufacturer of an auto transport rig because these claims did not require interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the U.S. Court of Appeals determined in an opinion not recommended for publication (Powers v. Cottrell, Inc., May 6, 2013, Suhrheinrich, R.). Because the worker’s claims did not involve the LMRA, the manufacturer had no basis for removal of the action to federal court.

Background. As part of his job responsibilities, the worker, James Powell, routinely loaded motor vehicles onto his trailer for the purpose of transporting them to destinations throughout the United States. While tying down a vehicle onto his rig, the worker sustained a shoulder injury. He filed a product liability and negligence action against Cottrell, the manufacturer of the rig. The manufacturer sought removal of the action to federal court, arguing that removal was appropriate because resolution of the driver’s claims would require interpretation of several provisions of the CBA between the driver, the driver’s employer, and the driver’s union. These provisions related to equipment safety, use of quick release ratchets, minimum standards for working conditions, and grievance procedures.

Complete preemption. Under the complete preemption doctrine, if Congress intends that a federal statute should completely preempt an area of state law, any complaint alleging claims under that area of state law is presumed to allege a claim arising under federal law. As such, removal of that state law claim would be appropriate. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Sec. 301 of the LMRA as preempting state law rules that substantially implicate the meaning of collective bargaining agreement terms. The Sixth Circuit, in applying the supreme court’s decision, has applied a two-prong test to determine if state law claims are preempted under the LMRA: (1) does resolving the state law claim require interpretation of the terms of the CBA, or (2) were the rights created by the CBA or by state law.

After immediately finding that the grievance procedure provisions did not apply to this case because the manufacturer was not a union, an employee, or an employer, the court turned to the CBA provisions involving equipment safety and standards. The manufacturer argued that resolution of the driver’s claims would require interpretation of the CBA because its provisions set forth "customary designs" and "standards for rigs," which required that the employer provide rigs "not less than the minimum standards." However, this claim was untenable, the court remarked. In determining whether a product is defective under Tennessee law, the courts must consider the customary designs, methods, standards, and techniques of manufacturing, inspecting, and testing by other manufacturers or sellers of similar products. An inquiry into the state of scientific knowledge available to the manufacturer did not require reference to the CBA, the court instructed, but could be provided by expert testimony, documents, manuals, or other sources. Similarly, while the CBA’s requirement that rigs be equipped with quick-release ratchets could require a reference to the CBA, other direct evidence could be used to explain the nature of the device and whether they were standard in the industry. Finally, the CBA’s provision establishing the minimum standards for working conditions did not require analysis of the agreement to determine whether that duty was breached. The question of standard of care was not relevant to the question of whether the rig was negligently designed or manufactured or whether it was unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. Because analysis of the CBA was not required in order to resolve the driver’s claims, the LMRA did not preempt the action and the manufacturer had no grounds for removal.

The case number is: 12-5923.

Attorneys: Brian M. Wendler (Wendler Law P.C. ) and Robert P. Gritton (Gritton & Gritton, PLLC ) for the Powers; Daniel J. Carpenter (Armstrong Teasdale) and Paul Michael Buchanan (Ortale, Kelley, Herbert & Crawford) for Cottrell Companies: Cottrell, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory PreemptionNews MotorEquipmentNews MotorVehiclesNews TennesseeNews

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