Products Liability: Federal Pre-Emption

By on April 6, 2011 - Comments off

Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., (Supreme Court, February 23, 2011) — S. Ct. —-, 2011 WL 611628

The heirs of a woman who was killed in a head-on collision filed suit against the manufacturer of the minivan in which she was riding at the time of the accident, asserting various products liability theories. The plaintiffs alleged that the decedent would have survived the collision if the defendant had equipped her second row aisle seat with a lap and shoulder harness instead of just a lap belt. Under FMVSS 208, (49 C.F.R. § 571.208) the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard in effect at the time the vehicle was manufactured, carmakers were not required to install shoulder harnesses in middle or aisle seats.

The defendant demurred to the complaint, contending that the claims were pre-empted by federal law which prohibits a state from establishing any safety standard applicable to a motor vehicle which is not identical to the federal standard. (15 U.S.C. § 1392(d)). The trial sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, finding that the action was preempted under Geier v. American Honda Motor Company, Inc. (2000) 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914. However, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed, holding that the regulation does not pre-empt the claim asserted by the plaintiffs:

“We concede that the history of the regulation before us resembles the history of airbags to some degree. In 1984, DOT rejected a regulation that would have required the use of lap-and-shoulder belts in rear seats. 49 Fed.Reg. 15241. Nonetheless, by 1989 when DOT promulgated the present regulation, it had “concluded that several factors had changed.”. . .

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.. . .

Why then did DOT not require lap-and-shoulder belts in these seats? We have found some indication that it thought use of lap-and-shoulder belts in rear aisle seats could cause “entry and exit problems for occupants of seating positions to the rear” by “stretch[ing] the shoulder belt across the aisleway,” id., at 46258. However, DOT encouraged manufacturers to address this issue through innovation: . . .

The more important reason why DOT did not require lap-and-shoulder belts for rear inner seats was that it thought that this requirement would not be cost-effective. The agency explained that it would be significantly more expensive for manufacturers to install lap-and-shoulder belts in rear middle and aisle seats than in seats next to the car doors. Ibid. But that fact-the fact that DOT made a negative judgment about cost effectiveness-cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid common-law tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion.

For one thing, DOT did not believe that costs would remain frozen. Rather it pointed out that costs were falling as manufacturers were “voluntarily equipping more and more of their vehicles with rear seat lap/shoulder belts.” Ibid. For another thing, many, perhaps most, federal safety regulations embody some kind of cost-effectiveness judgment. While an agency could base a decision to pre-empt on its cost-effectiveness judgment, we are satisfied that the rulemaking record at issue here discloses no such pre-emptive intent. And to 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. We cannot reconcile this consequence with a statutory saving clause that foresees the likelihood of a continued meaningful role for state tort law.”

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