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Drattel v. Toyota Motor Corp., 1998 N.Y. Int. 079 (June 16, 1998).

MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY ACT - SUPREMACY CLAUSE - FEDERAL LAW PREEMPTION - PRODUCTS LIABILITY - DESIGN DEFECT

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 does not expressly or implicitly preempt state common law claims when the particular claim at issue does not make compliance with federal law impossible or frustrate policy objectives of Congress.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

Plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident while driving her 1991 Toyota Tercel. At the time of the accident, she was wearing both a shoulder harness and a lap seat belt. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, Toyota, based on the theory of defective design due to the absence of an air bag. Defendant contends that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (hereinafter "Safety Act") expressly preempts non-identical state standards, including standards emanating out of state tort law. Alternatively, Defendant claims that Plaintiff's claim is implicitly preempted by federal law. Plaintiff counters that the express preemption provision, the savings clause, and the legislative history of the Safety Act support her argument. The preemption clause states that "[n]othing in this section shall be construed as preventing any State from enforcing safety standard which is identical to a Federal safety standard." 15 USC § 1392[d] (repealed 1994). The savings clause states that "[c]ompliance with any Federal motor vehicle safety standard issued under this title does not exempt any person from any liability under common law." 15 USC § 1397[k] (repealed 1994). The Supreme Court granted Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment. The Appellate Division reversed, denied the motion and reinstated in its entirety the complaint against Defendant. The Appellate Division granted Defendant leave to appeal, certifying the standard question as to the correctness of its order. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the intermediate appellate court's order.

ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Whether the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 expressly or implicitly preempts state common law design defect claims against automobile manufacturers for failure to include air bags in the automobile design.

Disposition

No. The Act does not expressly prohibit such common law claims. Further, the inclusion of a savings clause indicates that Congress did not intend to completely occupy this field of law. Finally, since the plaintiff's claim did not frustrate Congressional policy objectives, no implied preemption existed.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

Other Sources Cited by the Court

Cases Relied on by the Dissent

Other Sources Cited by the Dissent

  • 15 U.S.C. § 1410b[b][d] (repealed 1994).
  • 21 U.S.C. § 360k[a] (1996).
  • 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq (1996).
  • 49 U.S.C. § 15103 (1996).
  • 49 Fed. Reg. 28962 (1984).
  • 41 Fed. Reg. 24070 (1976).
  • S. Rep. No. 1301, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 6, reprinted in 1966 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2709, 2714.
  • H.R. Rep. 1776, 89th Cong., 2d. Sess. 16.
  • Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 30 (5th ed).
  • Wilton, Federalism Issues 'No Airbag' Tort Claims: Preemption and Reciprocal Comity, 61 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1 (1985).

RELATED SOURCES

  • Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 706 A.2d 806 (Pa. 1998).
  • Hyundai Motor Co. v. Alvarado, 974 S.W.2d 1 (Tex. 1998).
  • Boyle v. Chrysler Corp., 501 N.W.2d 865 (Wisc. 1993).

COMMENTARY

State of the Law Before Drattel

New York courts look to the principle of congressional intent to resolve questions of preemption. Guice v. Schwab & Co., Inc., 89 N.Y.2d 31, 39. Congressional intent to preempt can be analyzed in three ways: "(1) expressly[,] in the language of the Federal statute; (2) implicitly, when the Federal legislation is so comprehensive in scope that it is inferable that Congress intended to fully occupy the 'field' of its subject matter; or (3) implicitly, when State law actually 'conflicts' with Federal law." Drattel at para. 12. Several Supreme Court cases address express preemption. In Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, a preemption clause in the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 was found to encompass common law claims. The Cipollone majority emphasized that it "must give effect to the plain language [of the statute] unless there is good reason to believe congress (sic) intended the language to have some more restrictive meaning." Id. at 521 (citations omitted). However, there was no savings clause in the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. In Medtronic, Inc v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470, the Supreme Court found that the Medical Device Amendments Act of 1976 did not preempt a state common law negligence action against the manufacturer of an allegedly defective device. Drattel at para. 19. It explained that the word "requirement", in the statute, "appears to presume that the State is imposing a specific duty upon the manufacturer, and although [in Cipollone we] concluded that a statute preempting certain state 'requirements' could also preempt common law damages claims, that statute did not sweep nearly as broadly as [the statute in Medtronic]." Medtronic, 518 U.S. at 487-88.

Prior to Drattel, The New York Court of Appeals had not considered whether the Safety Act preempts state common law actions.

Effect of Drattel on Current Law

Drattel concluded that the Safety Act does not preempt Plaintiff's state common law claim. As noted above, a "preemption question is ultimately one of congressional intent," Guice at 89 N.Y.2d 31, 39, which can be recognized in three ways: (1) expressly; (2) implicitly, when the federal legislation is so comprehensive in scope; and (3) implicitly, when state law is in direct conflict with the federal legislation.

The Court first concluded that the Safety Act does not expressly preempt common law claims. The Court distinguished Cipollone, noting that it was particularly specific to the statute at issue in that case. Rather, the Court relied on Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, and Medronic, which held in favor of preemption. In the latter case, a plurality of the justices rejected the argument that Congress' use of the word "requirement" includes common law claims. Medronic, 518 U.S. at 486. The Court further noted that the majority of federal circuit courts have held that the Act does not expressly preempt State damage claims, and that the majority of the highest state courts have determined that the Safety Act does not expressly preempt State damage claims based on a manufacturer's failure to install air bags. Drattel at paras. 22-23. The Court went on to adopt a broad reading of the savings clause, explaining that "[i]t strains reason and common sense to suggest that Congress used sweeping language to create a constricted universe." Finally, the Court found that the legislative history confirms that Congress intended to preserve state law remedies. Id. at para. 27.

The Court next concluded that the Safety Act did not implicitly preempt state tort claims. First, both state and federal courts have unanimously concluded that Congress did not intend to occupy the entire field of automotive safety. Second, because it is not impossible for a manufacturer to comply with both federal and state regulations, the state law is not in direct conflict with the federal law. This reading of the statute conforms with the overriding goal of the Safety Act, which was "to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents." 15 U.S.C. § 1381 (repealed 1994). Contrary to the dissent's characterization, uniformity was not Congress' primary goal in enacting this legislation.

Dissent

The dissent agrees with the majority that the Safety Act does not expressly preempt the state tort claim, although it finds the question to be closer than the majority does. However, the dissent finds implied preemption because allowing state tort law to operate in this realm would have the effect of interfering with the method or intent of a federal regulatory scheme.

Reasoning that the "standards" promulgated in the Safety Act allowed manufacturers a choice of three restraint systems (airbags, passive restrains and manual restraints), the dissent finds that the "standards" of New York tort law are inherently and unavoidably in conflict with the federal statute. Although the dissent acknowledges that the primary intent of the legislature in enacting the Safety Act was to increase safety, the legislature was aware of the need to weigh economic factors in the balance and that uniform safety standards nationwide made compliance less costly for manufacturers. "Marginal increments in safety benefit which can be achieved only at great costs are not in the public interest." Drattel at dissent para. 22 (quoting 41 Fed. Reg. 24070 (1976)). In this motion for partial summary judgment, Defendant avers that the only way for Plaintiff to recover is for a jury to determine that a manufacturer should have used higher standard of care. Such a determination would conflict with the federal statute by imposing a higher standard.

The dissent further notes that the savings clause does not change this outcome. The dissent cites cases in which courts have held that the legislature cannot be found to intend that state common law rights should trump inconsistent federal statutory schemes. Because allowing a state tort claim for no air bag liability in effect allows a state to impose a higher standard on manufacturers than that imposed by the federal government, the dissent would hold that this tort claim must be barred by implied preemption.

Unanswered Questions

The majority fails to address satisfactorily the dissenting argument that one of the subsidiary concerns of the legislature in enacting the Safety Act was uniformity of standards throughout the states. The economic costs a manufacturer could incur in attempting to comply with the varying safety standards of the many states are not given any weight in the majority's attempt to divine the intent of Congress. The majority also fails to address Defendant's implied argument that the commercial impracticality of marketing automobiles with different safety devices tailored to each state's requirements could render compliance with both the state and federal law impossible.

In addition, it is unclear under what circumstances the court would find that there was not a "reliable indicium of congressional intent" against preemption where a statute specifically allows common law remedies. Drattel at para. 33 (citation omitted). Under what set of circumstances would "common law judgment ... be preempted due to conflict with federal law"? Drattel at para. 40.

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

As mentioned in Drattel, there has been extensive litigation over whether the Safety Act preempts passive restraint liability. The decisions are split among three lines: (1) those finding express preemption; (2) those finding implied preemption; and (3) those finding no preemption. The majority of courts find implied preemption.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that a passive restraint liability claim is preempted both explicitly and implicitly. See Boyle v. Chrysler Corp., 501 N.W.2d 865 (Wisc. 1993). Boyle holds that preemption is explicit because the savings clause does not protect a claim based on a state safety standard, including one imposed by common law liability, that conflicts with federal safety standards. See id. at 870. Since the Safety Act allows a manufacturer to provide only seatbelts, a state tort liability case finding negligence for not supplying an airbag would conflict with the federal standard. Alternatively, the Wisconsin court held that implicit preemption exists because the claim "conflicts with Congress' intent manifested in the explicit preemption provision." Id. at 871. Because the court states that the savings clause and the express preemption clauses conflict, it chose to look only to the express preemption clause. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 706 A.2d 806 (Pa. 1998) provided the following list of other cases holding that express preemption exists:

Harris v. Ford Motor Co., 110 F.3d 1410 (9th Cir. 1997); Johnson v. GMC, 889 F.Supp. 451 (W.D.Okla. 1995); Gills v. Ford Motor Co., 829 F.Supp. 894 (W.D.Ky.1993); Cox v. Baltimore County, 646 F.Supp. 761 (D.Md. 1986); Vanover v. Ford Motor Co., 632 F.Supp.1095 (E.D.Mo. 1986); Vasquez v. Ford Motor Co., 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18102 (D.Ariz. 1986); Martinez v. Ford Motor Co., 568 N.W.2d 396 (Mich.Ct.App. 1997); Zimmerman v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 920 P.2d 67 (Idaho 1996); Dykema v. Volkswagenwerk AG, 525 N.W.2d 754 (Wis. Ct. App. 1994); Panarites v. Williams, 629 N.Y.S.2d 359 (N.Y. App. Div. 1995); Miranda v. Fridman, 647 A.2d 1291 (N.J. 1994); Wickstrom v. Maplewood Toyota, Inc., 416 N.W.2d 838 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987); see also Gracia v. Volvo Europa Truck, N.V., 112 F.3d 291 (7th Cir. 1997) (holding common law windshield installation claims are expressly preempted by the Safety Act).

In Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that only implied preemption exists, using much the same rationale proffered in Boyle. A state frustrates Congressional intent by imposing tort liability on a car manufacturer that otherwise complies with the federal standard by installing seatbelts. The following is a list of other cases holding that implied preemption exists:

Estate of Montag v. Honda Motor Co., 75 F.3d 1414 (10th Cir. 1996); Pokorny v. Ford Motor Co., 902 F.2d 1116 (3d Cir. 1990); Kitts v. GMC, 875 F.2d 787 (10th Cir. 1989); Wood v. GMC, 865 F.2d 395 (1st Cir. 1988); Taylor v. GMC, 875 F.2d 816 (11th Cir. 1989); Courtney v. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., 926 F. Supp. 223 (D. Mass. 1996); Martin v. Ford Motor Co., 914 F. Supp. 1449 (S.D. Tex. 1996); Waters v. Ford Motor Co., 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3050 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (declining to overrule Pokorny in light of Cipollone); Heath v. GMC, 756 F. Supp. 1144 (S.D. Ind.1991); Dallas v. GMC, 725 F. Supp. 902 (W.D. Tex. 1989); Tammen v. GMC, 857 F. Supp. 788 (D. Kan.1994) (declining to overrule Kitts in light of Cipollone); O'Bryan v. Volkswagen of America, Inc., 838 F. Supp. 319 (W.D. Ky.1992); Weinstein v. Ford Motor Co., 1990 WL 85497 (D.S.C. 1990); Kolbeck v. GMC, 702 F. Supp. 532 (E.D. Pa. 1988); Heftel v. GMC, 1988 WL 19615 (D.D.C. 1988); Howard v. American Motors Corp., 1988 WL 156134 (S.D. Tex. 1988); Hunter v. GMC, 1988 WL 288972 (D. Conn. 1988); Kelly v. GMC, 705 F. Supp. 303 (W.D. La. 1988); Surles v. Ford Motor Co., 709 F. Supp. 732 (N.D. Tex. 1988); Staggs v. Chrysler Corp., 678 F. Supp. 270 (N.D. Ga. 1987); Schick v. Chrysler Corp., 675 F. Supp. 1183 (D.S.D. 1987); Wattelet v. Toyota Motor Corp., 676 F. Supp. 1039 (D. Mont. 1987); Hughes v. Ford Motor Co., 677 F. Supp. 76 (D. Conn. 1987); Baird v. GMC, 654 F. Supp. 28 (N.D. Ohio 1986); Minton v. Honda of America Mfg., Inc., 1996 Ohio App. LEXIS 3092 (Ohio Ct. App. 1996); Cooper v. GMC, 1996 Miss. LEXIS 265 (Miss. 1996); Beeman v. GMC, 1995 WL 813722 (W.D. Okla. 1995); Dutton v. GMC, slip op., No. CV-94793-A (W.D. Okla. 1995); Tietloff v. Ford Motor Co., slip op., No. 93-079-P(R) (W.D. Ky. 1995); Marrs v. Ford Motor Co., 852 S.W.2d 570 (Tex. Ct. App. 1993); Cerniak v. Nissan Motor Corp., 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10243 (N.D. Ill. 1991); Guarra v. GMC, 1990 WL 85497 (D.S.C. 1990); Purdy v. Ford Motor Co., 1990 WL 96091 (N.D. Fla. 1990); Hunt v. Ford Motor Co., 1989 WL 308034 (N.D. Ala. 1989); Gardner v. Honda Motor Co., 536 N.Y.S.2d 303 (N.Y. App. Div. 1988); Nissan Motor Corp. v. Superior Court (Meier), 261 Cal. Rptr. 80 (Cal. Ct. App. 1989); see also Schlotz v. Hyundai Motor Co., 557 N.W.2d 613 (Minn. Ct. App. 1997) (a "no lap belt" claim was impliedly preempted because the manufacturer complied with Standard 208) (citations from Cellucci).

In Hyundai Motor Company v. Alvarado, 974 S.W.2d 1 (Tex. 1998), the Supreme Court of Texas held that a state claim is neither explicitly or implicitly preempted by The Motor Safety Act. It's reasoning practically mirrors New York's reasoning in Drattel. The following is a list of other cases holding that neither implied nor express preemption exists:

Garrett v. Ford Motor Co., 684 F. Supp. 407 (D.Md. 1987); Munroe v. Galati (GMC), 938 P.2d 1114 (Ariz. 1997); Ketchum v. Hyundai Motor Co., 57 Cal. Rptr. 2d 595 (Cal. Ct. App. 1996); Hyundai Motor Co. (Korea) v. Phillip, 639 So. 2d 1064 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994); Tebbetts v. Ford Motor Co., 665 A.2d 345 (N.H. 1995); Nelson v. Ford Motor Co., 670 N.E.2d 307 (Ohio App. Ct. 1995); Wilson v. Pleasant, 660 N.E.2d 327 (Ind. 1995); Loulos v. Dick Smith Ford, Inc., 882 S.W.2d 149 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994); see also Doyle v. Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft, 481 S.E.2d 518 (Ga. 1997) (holding a "no lapbelt" claim was not preempted) (citations from Cellucci).

Prepared By:

  • Natalie Brouwer, '00
  • Angela D'Amato '00
  • Cassie Ehrenberg, '00
  • William Hawkins, '00
  • Benita Lee '99
  • Kelly Tsai, '99