In Williamson v. Mazda, SCOTUS Has Chance to Right Preemption Wrongs

By William Funk, Professor, William & Clark Law School, and Member Scholar, Center for Progressive Reform The Supreme Court will hear arguments on November 3 in a potentially important preemption case, Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America. In Williamson, a child was fatally injured in a collision when she was sitting in the center rear seat of a Mazda van, secured by a lap belt. The two other passengers in the vehicle, both wearing lap-shoulder belts, survived with minor injuries. The young Williamson, however, suffered severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding because her body jackknifed around the lap belt. The Williamsons sued Mazda asserting that the van was defectively designed by providing only a lap belt in the center rear seat. When the van was built, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's Federal Motor Vehicle Standard (FMVSS) 208 only required lap belts in the center seat, even while it required lap-shoulder belts in all other seats. Mazda moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the common law tort claim was preempted by the federal standard. The California trial court granted the motion and the appellate court affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider that decision. This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has considered the relation between FMVSS 208 and state tort law. In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. (2000), the Court held that FMVSS 208 at the time of that case preempted a state tort law claim that the failure to provide for an airbag was a design defect. Since that case, virtually every tort claim based on an alleged design defect regarding seat belts or airbags has been dismissed as preempted in light of the Geier decision. Thus, the outcome in Williamson in the lower courts is not surprising. What is surprising is that the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case. There are two possible explanations. First, unlike Geier, in which the United States filed an amicus brief in favor of preemption, here the United States filed an amicus brief in favor of granting certiorari, arguing that the lower courts had misread Geier and applied it much more broadly than appropriate. Second, on the merits, the United States is absolutely correct; Geier was a very fact-specific case, which subsequent courts have misread. In Geier, the plaintiffs were arguing that an auto manufacturer's failure to provide airbags in 1987 was a design defect. At that time, the 1984 version of the FMVSS 208 was in effect. Not only did it not require airbags to be installed, but the Department of Transportation had considered and rejected requiring airbags, instead opting to allow manufacturers to comply with a variety of passive restraints, and even these were to be phased-in over a period of years. The Department expressed the belief that this gradual approach toward passive restraints would most effectively result in increased penetration in the market of these devices as well increased acceptance and use by the public. read more

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