If a manufacturer has installed one of two seatbelt options permitted under federal motor vehicle safety standards, can a citizen sue the manufacturer in state court for damages resulting from failure to install the other restraint option, or is the claim preempted by the federal law?
Delbert Williamson sued Mazda Motor of America after his wife died in a car accident while she was riding in their Mazda MPV minivan. Williamson claimed that Mazda was liable under state tort law for installing lap-only seatbelts, as opposed to lap-and-shoulder seatbelts, in the rear aisle seat where his wife sat during the crash. Mazda argues that Williamson’s state law claim is preempted by a federal regulation granting manufacturers the choice between lap-only and lap-and-shoulder seatbelts in rear aisle seats. The California Court of Appeal sided with Mazda and held that federal vehicle safety regulations preempted Williamson’s claim because the regulations conflicted with his state law claim. Williamson, however, contends that the Court should allow his state claim because it does not conflict with federal regulations, but rather furthers federal objectives of vehicle safety. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will address the extent of preemption of state law claims by on-point federal regulations and in turn affect manufacturer liability under state tort claims.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Where Congress has provided that compliance with a federal motor vehicle safety standard "does not exempt a person from liability at common law," 49 U.S.C. § 30103(e), does a federal minimum safety standard allowing vehicle manufacturers to install either lap-only or lap/shoulder seatbelts in certain seating positions impliedly preempt a state common-law claim alleging that the manufacturer should have installed a lap/shoulder belt in one of those seating positions?
On August 14, 2002 the Williamsons were driving in a 1993 Mazda MPV minivan through Utah. See Brief for Petitioners, Delbert Williamson, et al. at 16. Petitioner Delbert Williamson was driving, and his wife, Thanh Williamson and their daughter Alexa were riding in the first row of seats behind the driver. See id. at 16. Alexa was seated directly behind Delbert Williamson and Thanh Williamson was seated directly to her right. See id. All of the Williamsons were wearing the seatbelts installed in their respective seats. See Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d 545, 547 (2008). Delbert Williamson and Alexa wore Type 2 seatbelts consisting of both a lap and shoulder belt while Thanh Williamson wore a Type 1 seatbelt consisting of only a lap belt. See id. As the Williamsons were driving, a motor home towing a Jeep Wrangler approached them from the opposite direction. See Brief for Petitioners at 17. The Jeep came loose from the motor home and crossed over into the Williamson’s lane, colliding with the Williamsons’ Mazda. See id. The Williamsons allege that the collision caused Thanh Williamson’s body to “jackknife” around the lap belt she was wearing and that this caused her fatal injuries. See Williamson, 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 547. Both Delbert Williamson and Alexa survived the accident. See id.
Delbert Williamson brought the suit in California, alleging that Mazda should have installed Type 2 seatbelts in the aisle seat that had been occupied by Mrs. Williamson. See Williamson, 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 547. Mr. Williamson argued that Mazda had a duty to install Type 2 seatbelts in the aisle positions because they are safer, and that Mazda’s failure to do so provided grounds to hold the company liable for Thanh Williamson’s death. See id.
Mazda moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Mr. Williamson’s suit was preempted by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (“Standard 208”). See Brief for Respondents, Mazda Motor of America, et al. at 14. Mazda asserted that Standard 208 permitted manufacturers to install either Type 1 or Type 2 safety restraints in the rear aisle seats, and so a state law permitting liability to attach to a manufacturer for using one of these options places the federal and state laws in direct conflict. See id. at 26. Mazda also asserted that, because of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, any conflict between state and federal law must be resolved in favor of federal law. See Williamson, 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 548. The California trial court agreed with Mazda and dismissed the Williamson’s claims, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed the decision, holding that the Williamsons’ lawsuit conflicted with Standard 208, and was therefore preempted by federal law. See Brief for Petitioners at 18–19. The California Court of Appeal relied on Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., which held that attempting to hold a manufacturer liable for complying with one of two options permitted by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard puts state law in conflict with federal law, and so the state law must be preempted. See Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 869 (2000); Williamson, 84 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 551. The Williamsons petitioned the California Supreme Court for review of the decision, but the court declined to hear the case. See Brief for Petitioners at 1. The Williamsons next petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari, which was granted on May 24, 2010. See Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, 130 S.Ct. 3348 (2010).
Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Safety Act (“Safety Act”) in 1966 to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries resulting from traffic accidents. See Brief for Petitioners, Delbert Williamson, et al. at 2; 49 U.S.C. § 30101. Under the Safety Act, the Secretary of Transportation has responsibility for prescribing motor vehicle safety standards. See 49 U.S.C. § 30111(a). The Secretary of Transportation assigned that responsibility to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”). See Brief for Petitioners at 3. The NHTSA has responsibility for promulgating Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”). See id. With limited exceptions, all vehicles must conform to prescribed safety standards. See 49 U.S.C. 30112(a). One such standard, Standard 208, addresses seatbelt rules created to reduce fatalities and injuries from crashes. See Brief for Petitioners at 4–5.
The Safety Act does not allow a state or local government to preempt federal law by using a lower standard than one in the Safety Act. See 49 U.S.C. § 30103(b)(1). The Safety Act also includes a “savings clause” stating that compliance with a safety standard does not exempt a person from state common law liability. See 49 U.S.C. § 30103(e); Brief for Petitioners at 3. In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., the Supreme Court held that the savings clause does not bar ordinary conflict preemption principles by which federal regulations trump conflicting state law. See Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 869 (2000). The Court also found, however, that the savings clause did not save state-law tort actions directly in conflict with federal regulations. See id. Direct conflict refers both to situations in which state law makes following a federal regulation impossible and situations in which following state law frustrates the purpose of a federal regulation. See id. at 873–74.
In this case, Delbert Williamson is suing under state common law, alleging that the seatbelts used by Respondent Mazda Motor of America (“Mazda”) led to his wife’s death. See Brief for Petitioners at 18. Williamson argues that he can sue under California state tort law because the state’s tort law is not directly in conflict with the federal regulations in Standard 208. See id. at 26. Mazda claims that Geier requires the Court to find that the state law is preempted by federal law, because holding Mazda liable under state law would directly conflict with the federal objectives of Standard 208. See Brief for Respondents, Mazda Motor of America, et al., at 22–23.
Do the objectives of the NHTSA in enacting Standard 208 directly conflict with state tort claims?
Williamson argues that the purpose of Standard 208 is to provide only minimum standards for seatbelt safety. See Brief for Petitioners at 3; 49 U.S.C. § 30102(a)(9). He contends that these minimum standards give a manufacturer an option to exceed expectations by installing Type 2 seatbelts to better protect itself from liability. See Brief for Petitioners at 28.
Mazda contends that Standard 208 represent a policy judgment by the NHTSA to give manufacturers a choice in seatbelt options. See Brief for Respondents at 23–24. Mazda argues that the NHTSA did not give manufacturers a choice between seatbelts with the idea that Type 1 provided a bare minimum standard, but rather provided options because both Type 1 and Type 2 seatbelts have their own risks and benefits. See id. at 40–41. Mazda believes that under Williamson’s reasoning, a manufacturer could just as easily be liable for choosing to install a Type 2 seatbelt, putting manufacturers in an intolerable position with potential liability for following either option of a federal regulation. See id. at 41.
Williamson claims that NHTSA’s objective in passing the 1989 version of Standard 208 was to encourage manufacturers to install Type 2 seatbelts for all aisle seats in passenger vans. See Brief for Petitioners at 26. He asserts the original 1967 version of Standard 208 gave manufacturers the choice of whether to use Type 1 or Type 2 seatbelts in all rear seats, but required Type 2 seatbelts for all front outboard (within one foot of an interior wall) seats. See id. at 5. Williamson states that the NHTSA later found strong safety benefits associated with Type 2 seatbelts in rear seats for both adults and children, and acted on these findings by promulgating new regulations in 1989 to expand the Type 2 seatbelt requirement to rear outboard seats. See id. at 7–9. Williamson argues that the NHTSA did not require Type 2 seatbelts for rear aisle seats because of “technical difficulties,” and asserts that the NHTSA encouraged manufacturers to design and install Type 2 seatbelts in for rear aisle seats whenever they could overcome such difficulties. See id. at 11. Williamson asserts, however, that manufacturers had overcome the technical difficulties in installing rear aisle Type 2 seatbelts by the time Mazda manufactured the Williamson’s 1993 MPV minivan. See id. at 40–41. Therefore, Williamson believes that permitting state common law tort liability would advance the federal objective of encouraging manufacturers to install Type 2 seatbelts, even where not strictly required, to advance the ultimate federal goal of vehicle safety. See id.
Mazda argues that the Court must view the 1989 version of Standard 208 in light of the NHTSA’s entire history of Standard 208 seatbelt regulation, not just based on the objectives of the 1989 version. See Brief for Respondents at 25. Mazda asserts that the original version of Standard 208 gave manufacturers a choice between Type 1 and Type 2 seatbelts in all rear seats based on a balance of safety, technical feasibility, cost, and public acceptance. See id. at 29. For example, Mazda claims that throughout the 1989 rulemaking process NHTSA took into account that Type 2 seatbelts were unsafe for children. See id. at 30. Mazda also argues that if Williamson is correct that the NHSTSA encouraged the use of Type 2 seatbelts, this actually furthers Mazda’s belief that Standard 208 gave manufacturers a choice in seatbelts. See id. at 33. This is because the encouragement included the caveat that manufacturers should only use Type 2 belts when they could overcome the technical and safety problem of Type 2 seatbelts blocking aisles. See id. Therefore, Mazda believes federal policies that fully considered the competing factors and granted manufacturers a choice should preempt any state law claim aiming to take away that choice, such as Williamson’s claim. See id. at 37.
How does Geier affect a finding of preemption of Williamson’s state-law claim?
In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., the Court found that the choice given by Standard 208 regulations on airbags preempted a state common-law tort claim that the automobile manufacturer should have used airbags regardless. See 529 U.S. at 864–65. Williamson distinguishes Geier from the current case by noting that Geier applied the 1984 version of Standard 208 governing airbag use in front positions, whereas this case concerns the 1989 version governing seatbelts in rear positions. See Brief for Petitioners at 12–13. Williamson contends that his lawsuit is consistent with Standard 208’s objective of encouraging manufacturers to install Type 2 seatbelts in rear aisle seats. See id. at 26.
Mazda argues that the Court in Geier focused on the range of choices Standard 208 gave manufacturers based on cost concerns, safety and technological issues, and consumer acceptance. See Brief for Respondents at 20. According to Mazda, these concerns also motivated the seatbelt choice in the present case. See id. at 29. Mazda claims that even though the Standard 208 section in Geier is not identical to that in the present case, the two cases are strikingly similar and the Court has not confined Geier to its facts but made a general pronouncement on the preemption of state-based motor vehicle claims. See id. at 22.
Williamson also argues that the Geier Court took into account the Department of Transportation’s view that a lawsuit pressing for an airbag requirement would conflict with the objectives of Standard 208. See Brief for Petitioners at 30. Williamson says that the United States’ position represents a consistently narrow view of implied conflict preemption. See id. In the present case, the United States maintains that Standard 208 does not represent a policy judgment that manufacturers should be free to choose between seatbelts, so Williamson’s suit does not conflict with any federal goals. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the United States of America in Support of Petitioners at 10.
Mazda counters that the United States’ position should not receive “special consideration” for several reasons, such as what, in Mazda’s opinion, is the clear regulatory history of the Standard 208 and contradictions between the NHSTA’s record and government claims. See Brief for Respondents at 48–50. Additionally, Mazda argues that the United States’ position is suspect, because the United States, for nearly a decade, allowed courts to find that Standard 208 preempted state tort actions on claims concerning the failure to install Type 2 seatbelts. See id. at 49. Mazda believes such silence indicates that the government agreed with the lower courts, but only recently shifted their position due to political changes. See id. at 49–50. Although such a shift is permitted, Mazda contends that these “new” positions must be viewed with suspicion. See id. at 50.
The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that when there is a conflict between state and federal law, federal law must govern and therefore preempts state law. See U.S. Const. art. IV. In the present case, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, promulgated under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, provided two seat belt options for rear aisle seats: either a lap only restraint, known as Type 1, or a restraint containing both a lap and shoulder belt, known as Type 2. See 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (2010). The Williamsons claim that Mazda should be liable because the company violated its common law duty to take reasonable care in designing the vehicle by installing the less safe Type 1 seatbelt in the rear aisle seats. See Brief for Petitioners, Delbert Williamson, et al., at 18. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect the supremacy of federal safety regulations in state courts, as well as the extent of manufacturer liability for compliance with those regulations.
Balancing States’ Rights with Uniformity of the Law
The Constitutional Accountability Center (“CAC”) asserts that a decision upholding preemption and dismissing the Williamsons’ claim would create an imbalance between federal and state power not sanctioned by the Constitution. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the Constitutional Accountability Center in Support of Petitioners at 5. CAC maintains that the Constitution moderated the power of preemption by only allowing it in instances where it was expressly required by the enacted law. See id. CAC holds that because the Motor Vehicle Safety Act does not expressly preempt actions like that brought by the Williamsons, the California Court of Appeal’s finding of an implied preemption extends the power of the federal government too far. See id. at 8.
On the other hand, the Product Liability Advisory Council (“PLAC”) argues that allowing the Williamsons’ claim to go forward will destroy the national uniformity that the Federal Motor Vehicle Standards was supposed to create. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc. (“PLAC”) in Support of Respondent at 12. PLAC contends that a decision in favor of the Williamsons would give the states license to eliminate options that the federal law expressly allows, or could provide grounds for individual states to require different safety restraint systems. See id. PLAC states that this would essentially take the decision of how best to promote safety out of the hands of the federal government, which is examining myriad factors to develop its policies, and place it in the hands of individual state juries concerned only with the particular facts of one accident. See id. at 13.
Competing Concerns: Increased Safety and Fair Notice of Liability to Manufacturers
The attorneys general of 24 states and the District of Columbia (“States”) argue that federal preemption here would reduce overall vehicle safety. See Brief of Amici Curiae the States of Illinois, Arizona, et al. in Support of Petitioners at 10. The States maintain that private suits serve as an important incentive for vehicle manufacturers to promote safety in their designs. See id. The States argue that technological innovations in safety can outpace the regulatory ability of the federal government. See id. at 13. State tort liability, on the other hand, can encourage manufacturers to implement the safest designs instead of permitting them to comply with outdated, but potentially cheaper, standards. See id. The States also maintain that preemption in this case would leave injured parties with no recourse against an “at-fault manufacturer” because there is no remedy provided in the federal law, and it is unlikely that Congress intended this result. See id. at 15.
In response, PLAC argues that allowing the Williamsons’ suit to go forward will create significant uncertainty for manufacturers. See Brief of PLAC at 28. Both PLAC and DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar (“DRI”) argue that these state tort judgments would result in unpredictable liability for manufacturers as the manufacturers would have no way of knowing what safety options would decrease their liability. See id. at 28; Brief of Amicus Curiae DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar (“DRI”) in Support of Respondents at 11. DRI argues that because the federal regulation gave manufacturers two options in what type of safety restraint to install, it would be unfair to hold the manufacturers liable for making a particular choice. See Brief of DRI at 12. Similarly, DRI argues that the inability of the manufacturer to predict its liability will lead to higher costs for consumers because manufacturers will be forced to pass along the cost of jury awards in order to maintain profitability. See id. at 13.
This case centers on whether a state suit permitting liability to attach to a car manufacturer for implementing one type of safety restraint allowed by a federal regulation creates a conflict between state and federal law. Williamson argues that there is not a direct conflict between state and federal law, while Mazda argues that the Supreme Court's precedent supports a finding of preemption in this case. The Supreme Court's decision will affect the extent to which manufacturers can rely on federal safety regulations as well as the remedies available for those injured as a result of particular design choices.
· Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Stohr: Mazda Passenger Seatbelt Suit Gets U.S. Supreme Court Review (May 24, 2010)
· Torts Prof Blog, Catherine Sharkey: The Politics of Preemption: NHTSA, State Tort Law & Automobile Safety (Oct. 4, 2010)
· University of Denver Law Review, Andrea Ahn: Wyeth v. Levine: Moving Away from the Geier Trend