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The basic idea of federal preemption is easily stated: It is a constitutionally mandated principle that demands that federal law trumps state law when the two conflict or in the rare instances when a federal law is so comprehensive that there’s no role left for state law to fill. But in practice, courts have often had difficulty applying the principle.

For plaintiff lawyers, preemption is an ever-present worry. When your client has been injured by a defective car, truck, medical device, boat, tobacco product, pesticide, or mislabeled drug, or has been victimized by a bank or other lending institution, the defendant will probably assert that federal law preempts your client’s state law damages claim. You can expect this argument no matter how weak the federal regulatory scheme or how attenuated the connection between that scheme and the harms your client suffered or the state law duties under which your client seeks a remedy.

But defendants’ and tort “reformers’” pro-preemption arguments do not reflect current preemption doctrine as established by the courts. A common—and false—argument for preemption, for example, is that state tort law necessarily interferes with federal regulatory objectives.

Moreover, preemption of state tort law is a bad idea. Immunizing the makers of products that cause injury simply because, for instance, these products have been approved for marketing by a federal agency harms both the injured people and society generally.

Publication Citation

43 Trial 20-25 (2007)