A Montana federal judge has denied Mazda Motor Corp.’s attempt to get a dismissal of a woman’s lawsuit. It’s claimed by the Plaintiff that the company’s automatic seat belt design caused her to suffer organ damage in a crash. Incarnacion L. Speaks had filed suit against Mazda, and the automaker took the position that her claims are preempted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The summary judgement motion was rejected by U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen, who said the Plaintiff’s claims are “more nuanced” than Mazda attempted to portray them in its motion. The judge said, unlike the Plaintiff in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Ms. Speaks never claimed that her car should have had an airbag or that all automatic seat belts are defective. The judge stated further:
The success of Speaks’ suit does not depend on the jury finding that every passive belting system is inherently defective; it depends only on the jury finding that Mazda’s particular design of the passive belting system was defective.
In Geier, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard preempted claims that Honda had a duty to put airbags in its vehicles. Mazda said further that Speaks had presented the court with the same kind of conflict. Mazda said the Plaintiff made a meaningless distinction between her case and Geier when she stated that she wasn’t criticizing Mazda’s decision to use a passive restraint system but how it had implemented its design. However, Judge Christensen disagreed.
Judge Christensen said that Ms. Speaks has alleged that at just 4’9” tall, she was too small to be adequately restrained by the seat belt in her 1994 Mazda Protege, and has presented evidence that safer alternatives to Mazda’s seat belt design were available at the time. The judge also granted in part Ms. Speaks’ motion for partial summary judgment on Mazda’s affirmative defenses, but declined to bar the company from raising its preemption defense based on Geier.
While the issue wasn’t suitable for summary judgment, Ms. Speaks touched on a preempted zone by claiming that Mazda’s design – a two-point automatic shoulder belt with manual lap belt – was inherently defective, Judge Christensen said. Mazda had also disputed testimony from two of the Plaintiff’s experts, claiming that one relied on irrelevant studies while the other relied too heavily on the Plaintiff’s own testimony.
The company said the studies one expert cited didn’t involve the exact circumstances that the Plaintiff has alleged, namely that she was wearing both a shoulder and lap belt during the 2011 accident in which her pancreas and duodenum were lacerated. Mazda said the other expert couldn’t rely on the Plaintiff’s version of events because her injuries don’t line up with the position of the seat belt as she described it, and the expert’s opinions are therefore unreliable.
The judge rejected those criticisms, stating that Mazda couldn’t criticize studies involving occupants wearing only shoulder belts and not lap belts when its own experts had said that body movement is similar in either scenario. Judge Christensen said it’s fine for an expert to use a Plaintiff’s testimony as the basis for an opinion. He added:
In fact, the only person who knows with certainty whether the shoulder belt was properly placed is Speaks. The physical evidence may call into question her veracity on this subject, but that does not preclude [an expert] from relying on Speaks’ sworn testimony in forming her opinions.
It will be most interesting to see how this case develops as it goes forward. I believe the case has merit and should be successful. We will watch it closely.
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