Thursday, June 3, 2010

Supreme Court agrees to hear case on seat belt preemption

In November 2010, the United States Supreme Court will listen to oral arguments in a case called Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., which asks the Court to decide whether a claim for damages in state court caused by a car manufacturer's failure to install a three point seat belt in a 1993 car is preempted by federal regulations that allow vehicle manufacturers to install either lap-only or lap/shoulder seatbelts in certain seating positions. The main question in the case has been summarized like this: "Where Congress has provided that compliance with a federal motor vehicle safety standard “does not exempt a person from liability at common law,” 49 U.S.C. § 30103(e), does a federal minimum safety standard allowing vehicle manufacturers to install either lap-only or lap/shoulder seatbelts in certain seating positions preempt a state common-law claim alleging that the manufacturer should have installed a lap/shoulder belt in one of those seating positions?" Stated this way, it seems to me the case will allow the Court to reconsider its decision in Geier v Honda (2000) (available here), in which a divided court (5 to 4) found that the federal regulation conflicted with the notion of recognizing a claim in state court and, thus, the claim was preempted. In that case, the federal regulation gave manufacturers the choice to install either seat belts or airbags. Given that the regulation allowed the manufacturer to make a choice, the Court found recognizing a claim for damages based on the lack of the system the manufacturer failed to choose was incompatible with federal law and, thus, preempted. It will be very interesting to see if, in the wake of Wyeth v. Levine, the Court changes its view. It will also be an interesting element of the legacy of retiring justice Stevens who wrote the dissenting opinion in Geier and the majority in Levine. Williamson v. Mazda Motor Corp comes from the Court of Appeals of California which decided against the plaintiff holding the claim was preempted under federal law. Here is a link to a copy of the California opinion. For more on the case go to TortsProf, where guest blogger Catherine M. Sharkey, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, has posted a very informative comment on the case. She concludes that "Williamson will narrow the reach of Geier implied obstacle preemption, but will not sound the death knell entirely..." For up to date information and for all the relevant opinions, petitions and other documents go (and periodically continue to check) here.

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