The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week (Nov. 3, 2010) in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am. (008-1314). The issue on appeal is whether an accident victim can sue a car
manufacturer for negligence in failing to install a lap/shoulder belt in a car when federal safety regulations permitted the manufacturer to install only a lap belt.
In Williamson, a woman 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. Thanh Williamson, however, suffered severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding because her body jackknifed around the lap belt. Williamson's survivors 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.
The Supreme Court addressed a similar question of preemption in Geier v. Amer. Honda Motor Co. regarding the installation of airbags. Also, the Supreme Court last year, ruling on preemption in a different context, said consumers can sue drugmakers for failing to provide adequate safety warnings. The 6-3 ruling in Wyeth v. Levine said pharmaceutical companies aren’t shielded from suit by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a treatment and its packaging information.
Mazda is attempting to limit lawsuits that accuse carmakers of failing to install the best safety equipment. The automobile industry and its allies are asking the court to reinforce Geier. Williamson is asking the Court to interpret the regulation as a minimum safety standard and allow state tort claims.
There is a possibility that Supreme Court might deadlock at 4-4 because Elena Kagan has disqualified herself. As President Obama's administration solicitor general earlier this year, she urged the Court to take the case. A tie vote would would leave intact a state court's ruling that favored automakers without setting a national precedent.