National Law Journal: High court allows state suits in seat belt cases

By Marcia Coyle

The Supreme Court on Wednesday opened the door to state personal injury suits against automakers in a decision involving vehicle lap belts.

The justices, in a unanimous decision by Justice Stephen Breyer, held that a federal motor vehicle safety regulation did not preempt state tort suits claiming that manufacturers should have installed lap-and-shoulder belts instead of lap belts on rear inner seats.

“It doesn’t get much better than a unanimous decision,” said Martin Buchanan of the Law Offices of Martin N. Buchanan in San Diego, counsel to the plaintiffs in the lap belt case, Williamson v. Mazda Motor.

The decision comes just one day after the high court held in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth that a federal child vaccine act preempted state lawsuits alleging that a vaccine was designed defectively. The justices in March will take up another preemption case, one involving generic drug labeling, in Pliva v. Mensing.

The lap-shoulder belt combination has been required on new vehicles since 2007. Prior to that year, the federal safety standard required automakers to install lap-shoulder belts on seats next to a vehicle’s doors or frames, but gave them a choice between those belts or seatbelts on rear inner seats, such as those next to a minivan’s aisle.

Thanh Williamson was sitting in the rear aisle seat of a 1993 Mazda minivan in 2002 when it was struck head on by another vehicle. She was catapulted over her lap belt and died from her injuries. Her family sued Mazda, arguing that it should have installed the lap-shoulder belt combination on rear aisle seats. The lower courts, relying on the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., dismissed the lawsuit.

Although Geier involved a different part of the same safety standard at issue inWilliamson, Breyer on Wednesday distinguished the history and objectives of the two portions. In Geier, the Court held that the portion of the standard that required automakers to install passive restraints preempted a state tort suit alleging failure to install airbags in particular. The Geier regulation, he said, was intended to give manufacturers a choice of installing any of several passive restraints. That choice was a “significant objective” of the regulation which was intended to give manufacturers time to improve airbag technology and to develop other passive restraint systems, he said.

But choice was not a significant objective of the lap-shoulder belt regulation, explained Breyer. “The more important reason why [the Department of Transportation] did not require lap-and-shoulder belts for rear inner seats was that it thought that this requirement would not be cost-effective,” wrote Breyer. That fact alone, he added, was not sufficient to show that the department sought to forbid tort suits.

Breyer also noted that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 contains a savings clause which specifically states that compliance with safety standards does not exempt a person from liability at common law. And, he added, the government took the position that the regulation did not preempt the Williamson’s suit. “As in Geier, ‘the agency’s own views should make a difference,'” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurrence to emphasize, she said, “the Court’s rejection of an overreading of Geier that has developed since that opinion issued.” Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment, saying that the plain text of the savings clause answered the question.

Williamson’s counsel, Buchanan, said, “I think the most significant thing about the opinion is it really corrects a widespread misreading of Geier in the lower courts. There was no conflict in the lower courts about our issue — they all went the other way based on the misreading of Geier. That misreading has occurred in other aspects of vehicle safety.”

Gregory Garre, head of the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Latham & Watkins, represented Mazda in the high court. Jay Amestoy, a spokesman for Mazda, said, “We’re obviously extremely disappointed. It’s important to note that the Court didn’t determine Mazda was liable to the plaintiff or that the subject vehicle was defective. It just means the plaintiff may continue its lawsuit and we plan to vigorously defend the case.”

But Stephen Miller, a commercial litigator with Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, said in a statement that the decision was predictable, but would make it more difficult for businesses to operate.

“I think people safely assumed that, because they had considered the issue 10 years ago and the government was agreeing with the petitioners, the Court was going to go this way,” he said. But, he added, “Companies that are trying to do the right thing have to comply not only with a single federal standard of conduct, but also a patchwork of 50 states’ different regulations.”

A surprise for “some progressives” might be Thomas’ concurrence, noted Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel to the Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed an amicus brief supporting Williamson. His opinion, she said, “sets out a vision of constitutional federalism that preserves the right of states to protect the health and safety of their citizens.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case because of her prior involvement as solicitor general.

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