A very important case that deals with consumer rights and vehicle safety is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involves Mazda Motor Corp. During arguments, several Justices indicated that accident victims should be able to sue even when automakers meet minimum federal standards set by NHTSA. It will be interesting to see how the Justices vote on this important case. It’s also very important to realize that NHTSA regulation sets only minimum standards. It was the view of Justice Sonia Sotomayor that “a minimum by definition gives manufacturers options.” But others, including Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested they would vote to limit lawsuits. Frankly, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise to Court watchers.
There has been speculation that the Court would likely deadlock 4-4 because Justice Elena Kagan, the newest member of the Court, has disqualified herself. As the Obama Administration’s Solicitor General earlier this year, Justice Kagan urged the Court to take the case. A tie vote would leave intact a lower court victory for the automakers, but would not set a national precedent. That would be very important.
As expected, the automobile industry is asking the Court to limit lawsuits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, food producers and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side. NHTSA has 59 safety standards that set minimum standards for automotive components. The standards set minimum performance guidelines that manufacturers must follow, but some of the standards are very weak and are not up to the state of the art in the automobile industry.
Mazda, based in Japan, was sued by the family of 32-yea- old Thanh Williamson, who died in 2002 in Utah. She was riding in a rear aisle seat in the second row of a 1993 MPV minivan. When the minivan was manufactured, seat belts that buckled only over the lap, without a shoulder harness, were permitted for some back seat passengers. The current regulations took effect in 2007 and require new cars to have shoulder restraints in all forward-facing seats, including rear aisle seats. The Williamson van struck a Jeep Wrangler that had become detached from a motor home that was towing it. The collision forced Ms. Williamson’s body to jackknife around her seat belt, causing severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding.
Mazda argues that NHTSA “specifically gave manufacturers the option of installing one type of seat belt or the other.” A California state appeals court barred the suit from going forward, ruling it was preempted by federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court last year, ruling on preemption in another case, said consumers can sue drugmakers for failing to provide adequate safety warnings. That ruling said drug companies aren’t shielded from suit by the FDA’s approval of a treatment and the drug’s packaging information. Martin Buchanan, a lawyer located in San Diego, California, represented the family in the case now under consideration by the High Court.
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