Supreme Court May Consider Federal Preemption of State Tort Claims
The husband of a woman who died in a car accident due to an insufficient seatbelt is filing a claim against the vehicleís manufacturer. Unfortunately, the carís seat belt may have passed motor vehicle regulation standards. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or has died in a car accident, contact an experienced New York personal injury lawyer at Trolman, Glaser & Lichtman, PC at 212-750-1200.
Husband Sues for Wifeís Fatal Injuries Caused by Minivanís Lap Belt
The plaintiff, Delbert Williamson, originally filed a wrongful death lawsuit in California state court against Mazda after his wife, Thanh Williamson, was killed in a car accident in their Mazda MPV minivan. Williamson alleged that Mazda was negligent in the accident because the company chose to install lap belts instead of lap and shoulder belts in the second row center seat of the MPV. Ms. Williamson, seated in the second row center seat, received abdominal injuries causing internal bleeding, and later died from these injuries.
At the time, the federal motor vehicle safety regulation (known as FMVSS 208) allowed vehicle manufacturers to install either lap belts (Type 1) or lap and shoulder belts (Type 2) for seats in non-outboard positions (seats that are not next to an exterior side or in the front or back). Mazdaís decision to install lap belts in the second row center seat complied with FMVSS 208.
Mazda moved to dismiss Williamsonís wrongful death claims and other state tort claims related to failure to warn. The state trial court agreed with Mazda and dismissed Williamsonís claims. Williamsonís appeal reached the Court of Appeals of California, but the state appellate court affirmed the trial courtís decision based on its analysis of the United States Supreme Courtís decision in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000).
Williamsonís last chance is an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. He petitioned for review, and the Court invited the Solicitor General to issue a brief in the matter, before it decides whether to review Williamsonís case. That is where the matter currently stands.
What Result if the Supreme Court Accepts Review?
The invitation to Solicitor General Elena Kagan to file a friend-of-the-court brief in this case indicates that the Supreme Court might accept review. Solicitor General Kaganís brief agrees with Williamsonís view that FMVSS 208 does not preempt state tort law as the trial and California appellate court had ruled. The Solicitor Generalís brief also points to several other lower court decisions in federal and state courts across the nation that she believes were misguided ó thus Williamsonís appeal may have a wider impact if the Court feels it must correct a misinterpretation that has been made by several lower courts.
The Solicitor General does mention one fact that may militate against the Court accepting review at this time: currently, there is no split in court decisions that specifically apply to FMVSS 208. The Court may wait to accept review until a state high court goes against this trend to create a split of decisions.
At the heart of the Solicitor Generalís brief is the position that, thus far, the lower courts have misinterpreted FMVSS 208 as a definitive standard of care, rather than the minimum standards that the Safety Act that created the federal motor vehicle regulations purported to create. In so doing, the lower courts have made the Safety Actís savings clause dead letter law.
The Safety Actís savings clause preserved a plaintiffís right to pursue a state tort claim even if the defendant asserted that he or she was not liable because of compliance with the federal regulations. The Safety Act also contains an express preemption clause that prevents states from creating standards that differ from those of the federal regulations, but the Court held in Geier that the Safety Actís savings clause saves state tort claims from the express preemption.
For now, Williamson and other state court plaintiffs across the country will have to wait to argue their claims of negligence, failure to warn and other applicable state tort claims. If the Supreme Court elects to accept review and reverses the California appellate courtís decision, he and other plaintiffs like him will have their day in court.
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