Justices’ decision could expand role of federal government in workplace hazard laws

Oral arguments in the Supreme Court Wednesday concerning workplace safety hazards came down to two words: in use.

The Court heard arguments in the case of Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp., a case centered around George Corson, now deceased, who worked in the rail industry for 47 years. Corson often handled asbestos-laced products and died from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Corson’s daughter and widow sued the manufacturer of the products, claiming it was partly responsible for his death. While there are state regulations in place regarding asbestos in the workplace, the federal law regulating railroads does not address asbestos risks.

According to American University Washington College of Law professor Andy Popper, the case is important because it could have implications not just for the railroad, but for many different workplaces.

“What is at stake is access to the courts, basic justice and the ability of injured consumers to have their harms redressed in state court claims for damages,” Popper said.

It is up to the Court to decide whether federal law preempts, or prevents, claimants from suing companies regarding workplace hazards based on state regulations. The industry claims that since there is a federal law regulating railroad safety, that law trumps any state laws on the issue. That’s where the phrase “in use” comes into play, based on case precedent.

“The industry argument is predicated on a 1926 preemption case, Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., which held that state were not permitted to pass legislation that addressed the same fields that the Locomotive Inspection Act addressed nearly a century ago,” he said.

While the Napier case did address federal railroad legislation, the Court “certainly did not contemplate asbestotic cancer risks and third party manufacturer liability,” two important factors in the Kurns case. Since the federal law doesn’t mention asbestos, if the federal law did overrule state law, manufacturers would not be responsible for liability claims meaning people like Corson and their families could not sue the manufacturer for damages.

Lawyers for Kurns argue that federal railroad legislation only trumps state regulations when the locomotive is “in use,” meaning on the railroad, because “in use” is the exact phrase used in the Napier decision.

“Congress enacted the Locomotive Inspection Act to ensure the safety of locomotives in use on railroad lines, not to regulate hazards to mechanics conducting repairs of locomotives,” David Frederick, counsel for the plaintiffs, said.

If this was the case, since Corson was a mechanic who worked on rail cars when they were not “in use,” his family would be able to hold the manufacturers liable.

Justice Antonin Scalia pushed back, though, calling parts of Frederick’s argument “unrealistic.”

Along the same lines, Justice Elena Kagan said limiting the regulatory authority of the federal government regarding safety standards to only apply to locomotives when they were in use seemed like a “very limiting construction.” She said the ruling in Napier has a broader construction and said she also believed the federal government has taken a broader understanding of its regulatory authority in the past.

According to Popper, since previous federal railroad laws do not address liability claims based on workplace hazards like asbestos, both the federal law and the state laws “can easily co-exist with claims seeking compensation for asbestotic cancer” and the “in use” argument may not even matter.

Although some justices seemed skeptical of the plaintiffs’ argument, they did have one group on their side—the federal government.

“In Napier, again, what’s important to remember is that the state statue at issue applied only to locomotives that are in use,” said Sarah Harrington, assistant to the Solicitor General, representing the United States.

Outside the court after the arguments, Richard Myer, a lawyer for the plaintiff, called the backing from the federal government “tremendously helpful.”

Myers said he was optimistic about the outcome of the case, but said he knew it would be a split decision.

“We will get some votes, but how this court is going to split, I can’t tell you,” Myer said.


As poverty in D.C. rises, local food banks attempt to keep up with demand. 

Children of Mine, founded by Hannah Hawkins (pictured), receives assistance from Capital Area Food Bank. Photo by Kate Flynn.

According to Census data released last month, one out of five district residents are living in poverty. Many area nonprofits are witnessing a steady demand of people requesting food and other assistance. Capital Area Food Bank works with over 700 agencies in the region to help meet the increased need.

Click to listen to an audio story on this topic:

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/37281952/FoodBankWeb.mp3]

Click here to listen to the sights and sounds from Taste of Bethesda


Hannah Kramer (right) and a friend bundled up to enjoy the food festival

Locals strapped on their rain boots and wool coats Saturday, braving constant drizzle and frigid winds, for the annual Taste of Bethesda food festival.

Almost 60 vendors participated, offering everything from steaming bowls of chicken chili to beer-soaked hot wings right off the grill. The festival allows attendees to sample a range of entrees for about $2-3 per dish.

“So far I’ve eaten a samosa with all kinds of sauces around it. Also, free bread samples and free cookies,” said Hannah Kramer, a student and first-time attendee. “But, I’m just getting started!”

Taste of Bethesda is a lot more than just sandwiches, samosas and free samples, though.

“In addition to the food, we have five stages of live entertainment,” said Stephanie Coppula, marketing director for the Bethesda Urban Partnership. “We have swing music, rock and roll music, flamenco dancers, Chinese lion dancers—really cool stuff.”

Sonia, 7, posted with Cheezer the Clown

Some of the participating restaurants included Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, which served guiness beef skewers, BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon, which offered ying-yang shrimp and Louisiana Kitchen and Bayou Bar, which fed patrons hot homemade jambalaya and gumbo. Hungry yet?

“We decided to do the festival again because we had such a great experience last year,” said Carlos Arana, owner of Louisiana Kitchen and Bayou Bar.  “We’re just excited to promote our food.”

Taste of Bethesda was started 22 years ago when a few local food vendors teamed up with the chamber of commerce to highlight downtown restaurants.

“They just wanted to promote the great restaurant scene in Bethesda, promote the food here and promote the diversity here,” Coppula said.

According to Coppula, usually the streets are packed full and unable to navigate. Although that wasn’t the case Saturday, several hundred people came out despite the weather.  Coppula said she’s just happy residents came to celebrate the tradition of the festival that was just a small gathering two decades ago.

“Even though it’s a rainy day today, we’re just glad that lots of folks have come out to enjoy the food,” Coppula said.

Music blasted from the speakers at Rockville Town Square in Maryland Sunday as hundreds of people came out to help raise money for research devoted to the prevention and cure of degenerative eye disorders.

Dylan, 4, tries out some new shades at Vision Walk

Over 600 people participated in the second annual Montgomery County Vision Walk, sponsored by the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Dozens of teams came out for the three-mile walk and raised over $80,000.

“We had wanted to have 25 teams and we are close to 40 teams,” said Donna Tehaan, Montgomery County chapter president.

Tehaan said the foundation and walk are close to her heart because she suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease that causes retinal deterioration.

Vision Walk wasn’t just for those with pedal prowess, though. It also featured music, dancing, a moonwalk, food and face painting.

First-time volunteer Olivia Owens said she enjoyed getting to meet people and watching everyone dance to the music.

“The music has been really fun and it’s just been a good time,” said Owens. “I think it’s really good how people are donating to this cause. I think it’s really important that people understand what’s going on.”

Vision Walk is the main fundraising event for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Since its beginning in 2006, there have been over 50 walks annually across the country.

Jim Lehrer takes questions from the audience at Politics and Prose on Sunday

Jim Lehrer takes questions from the audience at Politics and Prose on Sunday

Click here to listen to an audio story on this event:

Who knew Jim Lehrer had such a funny bone? The legendary newsman and former host of PBS NewsHour kept a packed audience rolling with laughter at his book signing Sunday.

Lehrer came to D.C.’s Politics and Prose bookstore to discuss his new book “Tension City,” which goes behind the scenes of presidential debates, including the 11 he has moderated in his career.

An audience of over 200 filled up every seat and even lined the walls to hear Lehrer speak about what candidates are like behind the scenes, famous debate gaffes and his advice for potential nominees.

Lehrer took time to sign copies of his new book "Tension City"

Lehrer took time to sign copies of his new book "Tension City"

Lehrer said the title of his book came from former President George H.W. Bush who said presidential debates are like “tension city.”

According to Lehrer, the tension felt on stage during a presidential debate is unavoidable. “The tension is extreme because the stakes are extreme,” he said.

Lehrer has hosted debates in a variety of formats but said his favorite debate format was one used in 2008 where each candidate got one minute to answer A question and then there was five to six minutes after where they could have a discussion about the question.

Lehrer cautioned, though, that debate formats are not most important. “The important thing is that you have these candidates on the same stage at the same time talking about the same thing,” he said.

During the question and answer session, Lehrer refused to give his opinion on current GOP presidential candidates but did offer them some advice aboutLehrer's tips and tricks answering questions during debates.

“Answer the question first, immediately—you’ll get great points—and then give your explanation,” Lehrer said.

London resident Indu Chandra said she came with her sister to hear Lehrer speak because they grew up watching him on television.

“He tends to be such a neutral figure during the news hour. It definitely was interesting to hear his personal perspective on the debates, which is something we don’t often get to hear,” said Chandra.

Although she enjoyed the discussion, according to Chandra, she was dismayed by the lack of young people in the audience.

“That is a pretty sad indictment of the generational difference that there is in terms of who watches public broadcasting, who cares about it and who knows who Jim Lehrer is and appreciates what he has to say,” said Chandra.

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Bluegrass, mariachi and American funk could all be heard as thousands of D.C. residents descended upon Adams Morgan on Sunday for the annual Adams Morgan Day Festival.

A man dances to music from the Virginia Woodpickers

A man dances to music from the Virginia Woodpickers

The free festival, which started in 1978, featured vendors selling food, homemade crafts and jewelry, and art from around the world.

Vendors included American University students selling bracelets made by orphans in Nicaragua, chefs offering kabobs from Southeast Asia  and D.C. artists exhibiting their latest work.

Thai jewelry maker Mu Saratis has sold handmade necklaces and earrings at the festival for 10 years.

Asian kabobs

The festival featured food from around the world including the Asian kabobs pictured here

“This is the best show I have in one year. There are a lot of people, they spend money and enjoy the day,” said Saratis. “The best thing is I have participated in this show for about ten years and it has never rained.”

Mission South, a local rock and blues band, was one of the many acts that performed during the street festival.

The band’s three members, who attend colleges around the country, rarely get to play together in their home city once school starts back.

“It was great to be playing in D.C. Just looking down 18th Street and seeing tons of people and the bars and clubs that we play during the summer—you couldn’t ask for more,” said John Beck, bass and vocals for the band.

Artist Dana Ellyn discusses her work with potential buyers

Artist Dana Ellyn discusses her work with festival attendees

According to artist Dana Ellyn, she loves coming to the festival to not only introduce her art to new attendees, but also to catch up with previous buyers.

“Ten years in, it’s great that I get the same people who come back and then new people every year. That’s very rewarding,” said Ellyn.

Adams Morgan Day is sponsored by Adams Morgan Main Street Group, a local nonprofit that hosts a variety of outdoor festivals and events throughout the year.

A sampling of music from the festival:

Man in the Mirror/Party in the USA Medley by Mission South

The Virginia Woodpickers

Mariachi Band

Today I went to the streets of Tenleytown to find out what Washingtonians think about Congress taking a 5-week recess. Listen to their responses below: