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State seat belt suits not preempted

Mark S. Young

Mark S. Young

Federal law doesn’t preempt state tort suits alleging seatbelts were negligently designed.

The Feb. 23 opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court overrules precedents from both the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the 7th Circuit, holding that such suits are preempted.

In 2002, the Williamson family, riding in a 1993 Mazda minivan, was struck head on by another vehicle. Two of the family members, who were wearing lap-and-shoulder belts, survived. But Thanh Williamson, sitting in a rear aisle seat, wearing only a lap belt, did not.

The Williamson family brought suit in California state court, alleging that lap-and-shoulder belts should have been installed on the rear aisle seats.

Both the trial court and the California Court of Appeals held that the suit was preempted by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, which gave car manufacturers a choice whether to install lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts on rear inner seats.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted review and reversed in an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer.

The court had previously interpreted an earlier version of the regulation to preempt state suits claiming that a manufacturer was negligent for not installing air bags. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000).

But the court distinguished Geier, because the 1984 regulation at issue in that case had different objectives than the 1989 regulation at issue in the current case.

In Geier, the court found that, because consumers were so resistant to using seat belts, giving manufacturers a choice was a significant goal of the regulation, and that choice would be undermined by state tort liability. The Department of Transportation hoped that allowing choice would lead to the eventual development of “alternative, cheaper, and safer passive restraint systems.”

When the 1989 regulation was enacted, in contrast, the retention of choice was based not on safety, but only cost.

The court explained the difference: “[DOT’s] 1989 reasons for retaining that choice differed considerably from its 1984 reasons for permitting manufacturers a choice in respect to airbags. DOT here was not concerned about consumer acceptance; it was convinced that lap-and-shoulder belts would increase safety; it did not fear additional safety risks arising from use of those belts; it had no interest in assuring a mix of devices; and, though it was concerned about additional costs, that concern was diminishing.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a separate concurrence, to emphasize, “the mere fact that an agency regulation allows manufacturers a choice between options is insufficient to justify implied pre-emption.”

Justice Clarence H. Thomas also wrote a separate concurrence, asserting the case should be decided on the plain language of the statute without resort to analyzing the purpose of the regulation.

Noting that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act expressly includes a savings clause that states, “Compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law,” Thomas opined that no further analysis was necessary.

Finding that the court in Geier wrote the savings clause out of the statute, Thomas would have overruled Geier, rather than distinguish it.

Habush Habush & Rottier
attorney Mark S. Young praised the court’s ruling. Young represented the plaintiff in Dykema v. Volkswagenwerk AG, 189 Wis.2d 206, 525 N.W.2d 754 (Ct.App. 1994), in which the court held that FMVSS 208 preempted a state tort suit alleging a 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit was defectively designed, because it lacked a manual lap belt.

“This issue of preemption has been swirling around in the auto industry for 20 plus years,” Young said in an interview. “Those of us on the plaintiffs’ side thought Geier was a poor decision because the savings clause makes clear that federal regulation is not intended to preempt state tort suits.”

Young said the decision limits Geier to vehicles made before the 1989 version of FMVSS 208, and that he expects the decision to have application outside of the motor vehicle industry as well. Young noted that some courts have applied Geier outside of auto regulations for the proposition that federal regulation giving manufacturers a choice equates to federal preemption.

David Ziemer can be reached at david.ziemer@wislawjournal.com.

What the court held

Case: Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., No. 08-1314

Issues: Do federal regulations preempt state tort suits alleging that a car’s seat belts were negligently designed?

Holdings: No. State lawsuits are not preempted, even though the regulation gives manufacturers choices in seat belt design.

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