CAC Files Supreme Court Brief Supporting a Proper Reading of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and Arguing Against Preemption of State Consumer-Safety Remedies

By Courtney Hostetler, CAC intern, Yale Law School ‘11

Last week, Constitutional Accountability Center filed an amicus curiae (friend-of-the-Court) brief in Williamson v. Mazda Motor, an important case concerning the ability of consumers to hold motor vehicle manufacturers liable for safety defects.  In Williamson – which the Supreme Court will hear during its upcoming October 2010 Term – the Court will revisit the doctrine of “implied preemption,” last applied by the Supreme Court in Wyeth v. Levine (discussed here and here), under which a court may hold that a state law is preempted by a federal law, even though the latter does not expressly provide for preemption. CAC’s brief, which supports the vitality of state common-law remedies that enhance Americans’ safety, argues that the text and history of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause – which makes federal law controlling over state and local laws – does not support broad implied preemption of state laws and remedies and only requires preemption when a state law or remedy directly conflicts with federal law.  Establishing the supremacy of federal laws when an actual conflict arises between state and federal law is necessary and important to the functioning of our federal government.  But so, too, is the vital and historical role that state common law plays in protecting the public’s health and safety and in ensuring that individuals can obtain compensation for injuries caused by the failure of corporations or persons to meet a state’s health and safety standards.

When the California Court of Appeal dismissed the Williamsons’ suit on the ground that it was preempted by federal motor vehicle safety standards, the court interfered with the state’s ability to carry out this function.  The Williamsons were riding in their 1993 Mazda minivan when it was struck by another vehicle; according to the lawsuit filed by the Williamson family, Mrs. Williamson died as a result of the internal injuries she suffered when her body jackknifed over the lap-only seatbelt she was wearing in the rear seat of the minivan.  The Williamsons sought to hold Mazda responsible for this lap-only seatbelt arrangement, and brought a common-law tort claim in California court arguing that Mazda should have installed a lap/shoulder belt.  Although the federal motor vehicle safety standard did not require car manufacturers to install lap/shoulder belts in the vehicle location in which Mrs. Williamson was seated, this federal standard established only a regulatory floor, not a ceiling.  Mazda was not precluded from meeting the higher state safety standard, and, indeed, through jury verdicts and traditional state common-law remedies, states may hold manufacturers to a higher standard of safety than the federal government does.

As CAC argued in its brief, the Williamsons’ lawsuit presents no conflict requiring federal preemption because a manufacturer can comply with both the federal standard and the common law rule by meeting the higher common law standard.  Indeed, the federal law governing the federal regulations purposefully included a savings clause that allows state common law to establish higher standards than the ones imposed by the regulations.  The California Court of Appeal, however, misapplied Supreme Court precedent and misread this savings clause.  In its brief, CAC urged the Supreme Court to correct this misinterpretation of the law and affirm the proper scope of the implied preemption doctrine.

States long have been at the forefront of consumer protection.  Common law rules protect consumers and hold manufacturers, corporations, and individuals liable for harming the health and safety of the public.  The Constitution’s Framers intended to protect the ability of states to carry out their law-making and common-law rule-making functions; nothing in the Supremacy Clause or in historical preemption cases suggests otherwise.  Williamson v. Mazda Motor is one of several preemption cases that the Supreme Court will consider during the next Term; please continue to follow Text & History for further discussion of preemption and the Supremacy Clause.

Courtney contributed to CAC’s brief filed in the Williamson case.

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