In seat belt case, Supreme Court to revisit preemption of auto defect claims

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October 26, 2010

In seat belt case, Supreme Court to revisit preemption of auto defect claims 

Courtney L. Davenport

The stakes will be high next Wednesday, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case that pits plaintiffs alleging seat belt defects against a manufacturer that contends the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act preempts state law tort claims. (Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., No. 08-1314 (cert. granted May 24, 2010).)

The Court’s holding is likely to set standards for auto defect suits and possibly for other products liability litigation as well.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) promulgates minimum auto safety standards under the act, which includes a “savings clause” that specifies that compliance with a safety standard doesn’t exempt a party from common law liability. At issue is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208, which, in 1993, required lap/shoulder seat belts in most vehicle positions but didn’t mandate them for the center or aisle rear seats in vans.

Thanh Williamson was riding in the second-row aisle seat of a 1993 Mazda minivan when another vehicle struck the van head-on. She died from internal injuries after her body jackknifed over the lap-only seat belt.

Williamson’s family sued Mazda, claiming the manufacturer had a common law duty to install a lap/shoulder belt for the rear aisle seat because the technology was feasible and known to reduce the risk of injury or death to passengers.

A California trial court found that FMVSS 208 preempted the plaintiffs’ state law claims because they impliedly conflicted with the standard’s intent to allow manufacturers to choose which belt to install.

A state appellate court affirmed, relying on Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., in which the Supreme Court—reviewing an earlier provision in the same safety standard—held that the Department of Transportation declined to require air bags because it wanted to give manufacturers a “wide variety” of passive restraint systems to choose from. (529 U.S. 861 (2000).) The court in Williamson said the same reasoning applies to the seat belt provision. (84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 545 (Ct. App. rev. denied Feb. 11, 2009).)

But the plaintiffs—supported by amicus briefs from numerous consumer and auto safety organizations, including AAJ—disagree. They argue that the regulatory history of the air bag provision specified that it was meant to give manufacturers alternatives, whereas NHTSA explicitly encouraged manufacturers to install lap/shoulder belts in all seating positions. Even if there is such a thing as implied conflict preemption—and AAJ argues that there isn’t—clear evidence of conflict is lacking.

“The lower courts’ broad theory of implied preemption should be repudiated because it would effectively convert the federal safety floor into a liability ceiling and defeat the scheme of cooperative federalism embodied in the Safety Act,” the plaintiffs wrote in their Supreme Court brief.

NHTSA itself agreed with the Williamsons in an amicus brief, saying that a conflict occurs only when a federal regulation both sets out options for compliance and specifically provides that regulated parties are free to choose among them. Although it didn’t require lap/shoulder belts in rear inner seats, NHTSA argued, its policy objectives would have been met if the manufacturers had installed them—unlike in Geier, where its objectives would have been frustrated if states had forced automakers to install air bags.

“The agency’s own understanding of the regulatory framework that it implements and administers is the best evidence that the common law duty on which petitioners rely will not pose an obstacle to the full achievement of those federal purposes and objectives,” NHTSA concluded.

Allison Zieve, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said that NHTSA’s endorsement could have a big impact.

“I don’t think any of the justices have found an implied conflict where the agency disagreed,” she said. “It would seem odd for an agency to say, ‘It’s not a problem for us,’ and then have the Court saying, ‘Yes, it is.’”

Noting that the decision will affect cases in which regulations arguably give manufacturers a choice from a limited number of options, Jeffrey White, senior amicus counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Constitutional Litigation, said it could affect other realms as well.

“Implied conflict preemption is raised in many other products liability cases, and a narrow interpretation from the Court would affect them,” he said. “When applied to state tort causes of action, this expansive federal preemption leaves ordinary citizens with no remedy at all for wrongful injuries.”

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