In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. In that case, Alexis Geier suffered severe head and facial injuries in an accident while driving a 1987 Honda Accord. The Accord was not equipped with a driver’s side airbag. The Geiers’ claimed that had Honda equipped this Accord with a driver’s side airbag, then Alexis’ injury would have been non-existent or reduced. In a 5 – 4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Geiers’ claims were preempted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act of 1966. In other words, the High Court determined that the Geiers could not attempt to prove their claims because a federal law took precedence over the common law relied upon by the Geiers.
To support its argument, those five Justices determined that NHTSA had permitted manufacturers to choose among several types of passive restraints, including airbags, so that a variety of passive restraints would be included in automobiles on the market. The Supreme Court determined that Honda should not be punished for choosing a passive restraint other than an airbag since NHTSA had permitted Honda to choose another type of passive restraint.
Once again, preemption is an issue potentially pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case styled Williamson v. Mazda Motor Company. The Justices asked the Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, to submit a brief on whether preemption issues raised in Williamson should be argued before the Court. In Williamson, a father, mother and daughter were traveling in a 1993 Mazda MPV minivan. The daughter was seated in a middle position seat. The seatbelt available for the middle position seat was a lap-belt-only seatbelt. The Williamsons’ vehicle collided with another vehicle and the daughter sustained fatal injuries. Specifically, the lap belt allowed the young girl’s body to “jack knife” around the lap belt, which resulted in severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding which led to her death.
The Williamson family claimed that the 1993 Mazda MPV was defective because Mazda should have installed a three-point restraint system for the daughter’s middle seat position. In response, Mazda claimed that FMVSS preempted the Williamsons’ claims against Mazda. The lower court determined that NHTSA permitted car manufacturers the option to either install a lap belt or a three-point restraint system in that seating position. Therefore, since Mazda had an option to install either one, then the common law claims of the Williamsons were preempted.
In its brief before the Court, the Solicitor General stated that the Justices should hear the arguments of the parties in Williamson because lower courts, including the Williamson court, are misreading Geier and misinterpreting the preemptive effective of FMVSS. In its brief, the Solicitor General noted that the Safety Act requires the Secretary of Transportation to “prescribe motor vehicle safety standards,” which are “minimum standard[s] for motor vehicle or motor vehicle equivalent performance.” Additionally, the Safety Act includes a savings clause which provides “[c]ompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law.”
If a court, according to the Solicitor General, gives too broad a reading to the Geier decision then the court is depriving the Safety Act savings clause of its proper effect. In other words, some lower courts are transforming FMVSS from a minimum standard into a definitive standard of care, which is, according to the Solicitor General, in direct contradiction to the Safety Act. A state common law duty of care that sets a higher minimum does not create a conflict with federal law and thus there should be no preemption.
It is clear from reading the brief of the Solicitor General that Mazda should not be permitted to hide behind a preemption defense for its unsafe seatbelt. As the public well knows, a three-point restraint more effectively protects occupants compared to a lap belt only. In 1993, there was a clear preference for three-point restraint systems and other manufacturers were installing three-point restraint systems throughout every seating position in vehicles. Manufacturers must not design down to the minimum safety standards of NHTSA. Rather, manufacturers should be exceeding by large margins the minimum safety standards of FMVSS in order to produce safe vehicles.
Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court will accept the Williamson case and limit the application of the preemption argument by car manufacturers. To do so will encourage manufacturers to build safer cars. I agree with the sound reasoning and legal arguments of the Solicitor General of the United States of America (briefs of the Solicitor General can be located at www.justice.gov/osg/briefs). If you need more information on this subject, contact Cole Portis, who heads up our firm’s Personal Injury/Products Liability Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Cole.Portis@beasleyallen.com.
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