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Supreme Court says seat belt defect cases aren't preempted

By Courtney L. Davenport

The U.S. Supreme Court handed plaintiffs a significant preemption victory last week, holding 8-0 that suits alleging seat belt defects under state law are not preempted by the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. (Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 2011 WL 611628 (Feb. 23, 2011).)

The ruling will hamper defendants’ often successful reliance on Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., in which the Court determined that preemption applied in an auto defect claim involving the manufacturer’s failure to install air bags. (529 U.S. 861 (2000).) Plaintiff attorneys say Williamson could have a wide impact on other products liability litigation.

“The Court has provided a clear statement that Geier does not stand for the proposition that there is broad preemption of damages claims in auto defect cases,” said Allison Zieve, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, noting that the Court had similarly held in Wyeth v. Levine that defendants were reading Geier too broadly. The Levine decision held that prescription drug failure-to-warn claims are not preempted by FDA regulation of drug labeling. (129 S. Ct. 1187 (2009).)

“I hope that Williamson, along with Wyeth, will discourage courts more generally from accepting the nebulous preemption theories that are so often presented by defendants in product defect cases,” Zieve said.

AAJ President Gibson Vance said the ruling will have a significant impact for many plaintiffs represented by AAJ members, noting that the organization filed an instrumental amicus curiae brief in the case.

“AAJ argued that state tort remedies complement, rather than conflict with, federal safety regulation and urged the Court to rein in the overly expansive use of ‘obstacle’ preemption to deny tort victims their day in court,” he said.

At issue is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208, which, in 1993—when the Mazda minivan involved in the case was manufactured—required lap/shoulder seat belts in all seat positions except certain rear seat positions in vans. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) specified in the regulation that although lap/shoulder belts were safer, requiring them in all positions would not be cost-effective. The statute had a saving clause that said compliance with the standard did not exempt manufacturers from common law liability.

Thanh Williamson’s family sued Mazda after she died in a collision because she was wearing a lap-only seat belt. They claimed the automaker had a duty under state law to install the safer lap/shoulder belts. The California trial court dismissed the suit, finding that FMVSS 208 preempted the claims.

An appellate court affirmed, relying on the ruling in Geier that an earlier version of FMVSS 208 preempted state tort suits alleging an automaker should have installed air bags. The Geier Court said that NHTSA intentionally gave manufacturers a choice among available passive-restraint systems and that the state law was an “obstacle to the accomplishment” of that federal regulatory objective. The appeals court in Williamson said the same reasoning applies to the choice between two seat belt systems.

The Supreme Court—in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, with two concurring opinions—rejected that argument, finding that, unlike the air bag provision, the seat belt regulation explicitly encouraged automakers to install lap/shoulder belts. In fact, NHTSA supported the plaintiffs in an amicus brief, arguing that its policy objectives would have been met if the automakers had installed the belts.

Rather than expressing a regulatory objective, the seat belt provision was based on cost-effectiveness, a judgment in most federal safety standards that doesn’t signify preemptive intent, the Court said.

“[T]o infer from the mere existence of such a cost-effectiveness judgment that the federal agency intends to bar states from imposing stricter standards would treat all such federal standards as if they were maximum standards, eliminating the possibility that the federal agency seeks only to set forth a minimum standard potentially supplemented through state tort law,” Breyer wrote. “We cannot reconcile this consequence with a statutory saving clause that foresees the likelihood of a continued meaningful role for state tort law.”

Williamson was the second preemption decision in two days to emerge from the Court last week. The first went the other way, as the justices held that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act preempts all design defect claims against vaccine manufacturers. ( Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 2011 WL 588789 (U.S. Feb. 22, 2011).)