Supreme Court Allows Lawsuit Against Automaker Even Though Safety Regulations Were Met


USA Today has posted an article about a recent Supreme Court ruling that says car company Mazda can be sued for not having certain safety equipment in some of their vehicles, even though the vehicles met the government’s safety standards. The decision allows a lawsuit over a woman’s death in 2002 to progress forward.

Ms. Than Williamson was sitting in the middle seat of the second row of a 1993 Mazda MPV and was wearing her seatbelt, but it was only a lap belt. Upon collision, Williamson’s body “jackknifed” around the lap belt, killing her. Her family is suing Mazda because the middle seat was not equipped with the standard 3 point seatbelt that is required for the outboard seats, even though the lap belt met federal safety requirements.

Mazda argued it was immune from lawsuits because the government in 1989 gave it a choice of a lap or three-point belts in the middle rear seat. A suit forcing them to use lap-and-shoulder belts, it argued, would invalidate the choice offered by regulators.

The ruling means the lawsuit by Than Williamson’s family now can proceed in California. The lawsuit says Williamson, who was from Utah, died in the 2002 accident when her body jackknifed around the lap belt causing fatal internal injuries.

Mazda insists that it is immune from this lawsuit because the government allowed the company to use lap belts in middle seats in 1989. California state courts agreed with Mazda and threw out the case, citing a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that required automakers to install more airbags instead of passenger restraints.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the High Court opinion majority judgment, said the only way that Mazda would be immune is if the “significant objective” of the federal regulation was to give auto manufacturers a choice of which seat belts to install.

The Transportation Department “gave no indication that its safety goals required the mixture of seat-belt types that resulted from manufacturers’ ability to choose different options,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a concurring opinion.

Added Breyer: “The more important reason why DOT did not require lap-and-shoulder belts for rear inner seats was that it thought that this requirement would not be cost-effective. The agency explained that it would be significantly more expensive for manufacturers to install lap-and shoulder belts in rear middle and aisle seats than in seats next to the car doors. But that fact — the fact that DOT made a negative judgment about cost effectiveness — cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid common law tort lawsuits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion.”

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the judgment, but said the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 made coming to that conclusion even easier: “Congress has instructed that ‘compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law,” Thomas said.

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