Preemption of state court motor vehicle products liability claims after Williamson: is preemption over?

By Sharon Caffrey& Alyson Walker

Posted: 2nd August 2011 11:28

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Williamson v. Mazda Motors of America, Inc., et al.,(1) that the plaintiffs’ state law-based lawsuit against Mazda was not preempted because no significant regulatory objective existed behind the choices of seatbelt designs car manufacturers are permitted to use under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (“FMVSS”) 208.  In so ruling, the Supreme Court has allowed plaintiffs to pursue state law-based design defect claims arising from seatbelts, as such claims are not preempted by federal regulations.

FMVSS 208 requires automotive manufacturers to install seatbelts in the rear seats of motor vehicles. Manufacturers are required under FMVSS 208 to install lap-and-shoulder seatbelts for seats next to vehicles doors or frames.  However, for rear middle or inner seats,(2) FMVSS 208 provides manufacturers the choice to install either lap-and-shoulder seatbelts or just lap belts.

The plaintiffs in Williamson brought a state tort lawsuit in California against Mazda after Thanh Williamson died in a car accident.  Williamson was sitting in a rear aisle seat of a minivan.  The plaintiffs contended that Mazda was liable for Williamson’s death because the Mazda minivan had only a lap belt installed for the rear aisle seat Williamson was occupying at the time of the car accident, rather than a lap-and-shoulder seatbelt.  The California state trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims on the pleadings based upon federal preemption, and the trial court’s decision was upheld by the California Court of Appeal.  The appellate court based its decision on the U.S. Supreme Court’s prior decision in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co.(3)

In Geier, the Supreme Court found preemption of a state tort lawsuit under an earlier version of FMVSS 208, which required the installation of passive restraint devices, but allowed car manufacturers the choice of which passive restraint devices to install in their vehicles. (Preemption is the replacement of a state law right by federal law and arises from the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.) In Geier, the Supreme Court first found that FMVSS did not expressly preempt state tort claims because the statute states that it “does not exempt any person from liability under common law.”  The Supreme Court found further that although FMVSS allows common law claims, it also still allows for preemption principles to be applied where a state tort lawsuit creates an obstacle to a federal regulation.

Finally, in Geier, the Supreme Court looked to whether the state tort lawsuit conflicted with FMVSS.  The Court found that the state tort lawsuit “stood as an obstacle to the accomplishment of a significant federal regulatory objective, namely, giving manufacturers a choice among different kinds of passive restraint systems.”  Providing manufacturers with the ability to choose among different passive restraint devices was a significant objective of FMVSS, according to the Geier Court, as evidenced by the regulation and its history; the promulgating agency’s explanation of its objectives at the time the regulation was enacted; and the agency’s current position regarding whether the regulation is preemptive.

When deciding Williamson, the Supreme Court applied its first two holdings in Geier and then turned to whether the state tort lawsuit regarding the lap seatbelt conflicted with, or stood as an obstacle to, a significant federal regulatory objective.  The Court reviewed the regulatory history, the reasons why the U.S. Department of Transportation permitted manufacturers the choice of lap-and-shoulder seatbelts versus lap seatbelts and the Department of Transportation’s current view regarding the preemptive effect of FMVSS.

The Court found that the Department of Transportation permitted a choice regarding seatbelts for different reasons than when it allowed choice regarding passive restraints, as was the case in Geier.  The Court found the reason lap-and-shoulder belts were not required was two-fold: There were concerns about potential difficulties getting in and out of vehicles from shoulder straps cutting across aisles; however, this was not the main concern.  The main reason lap-and-shoulder belts were not required was because it would not be cost-effective.  The Court found that, although a decision to preempt could be based on whether a regulation was cost-effective, there was no intent by the Department of Transportation to preclude state tort lawsuits regarding the choice of seatbelts systems based on cost-effectiveness.

The federal government’s then-current position was also found to align with the Court’s interpretation of the history and intent underlying the choice of seatbelt systems in FMVSS 208.  The Court noted that the Solicitor General stated that FMVSS 208 did not preclude the plaintiffs’ lawsuit regarding lap seatbelts.  Significantly, the Solicitor General explained “a standard giving manufacturers ‘multiple options for the design of’ a device would not pre-empt a suit claiming that a manufacturer should have chosen one particular option, where ‘the Secretary did not determine that the availability of options was necessary to promote safety’” (emphasis added).  The Court found that Williamson was a case in which the option to install lap-and-shoulder seatbelts or lap seatbelts was unnecessary to promote safety. Indeed, the Department of Transportation was not concerned about safety; rather, it believed lap-and-shoulder belts would increase safety and was not concerned about additional safety risks from lap-and-shoulder belts, according to the Court.

Because the Court did not find a significant regulatory objective behind the choice allowed under FMVSS 208, the plaintiffs’ state tort lawsuit was not preempted.  The lack of a significant regulatory objective is what differentiates Williamson from the Court’s prior decision in Geier.

After Williamson, it is apparent that manufacturers cannot assume that making a choice permitted under federal regulation will insulate them from state tort lawsuits, as preemption applies only when the state tort lawsuit obstructs an important regulatory objective.  Therefore, when designing vehicles, manufacturers should consider whether an important regulatory objective would be obstructed by a state tort lawsuit.

 

Sharon Caffrey is a partner at the law firm of Duane Morris LLP and is the chair of the products liability practice group. She regularly tries products liability cases around the United States. Ms. Caffrey concentrates her practice in the areas of mass tort, products liability and toxic tort litigation. She is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is a frequent speaker on issues that impact products liability litigation.  Sharon can be contacted on +1 215 979 1180 or by email at SLCaffrey@duanemorris.com 

Alyson Walker is an associate at the law firm of Duane Morris LLP and is a member of the products liability practice group. She is a 2007 cum laude graduate of Villanova University School of Law, where she was editor in chief for the Villanova Environmental Law Journal, and a magna cum laude graduate of Bucknell University.  Alyson can be contacted on +1 412 497 1032 or by email at abwalker@duanemorris.com 

(1) 131 S. Ct. 1131 (2011).

(2) Other rear inner seats include seats that are next to the aisle in a minivan and are not next to a vehicle’s doors or frames.

(3) 529 U.S. 861 (2000).

 


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