Mazda Seatbelt Case Prompts Automaker Appeal for Claims Shield

The automobile industry, in a case involving Mazda Motor Corp., is seeking the U.S. Supreme Court’s help in limiting lawsuits that accuse carmakers of failing to install the best safety equipment.

Toyota Motor Corp., facing more than 300 lawsuits over alleged unintended acceleration, could have a big stake in the outcome of the dispute. The high court will hear arguments tomorrow.

“This case raises issues of enormous importance to auto manufacturers,” said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The fear, he said, is that federal regulations will be “superseded” by a patchwork of state laws on personal injury claims.

The Supreme Court might deadlock 4-4 because Elena Kagan, the newest justice, has disqualified herself. As the Obama administration’s solicitor general earlier this year, she urged the court to take the case. A tie vote would leave intact a lower court ruling that favored automakers without setting a national precedent.

The auto industry and its allies are asking the court to reinforce a 2000 decision that said federal law shields automakers from state law claims over how quickly manufacturers installed air bags, now required in vehicles sold in the U.S.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, food producers and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side.

Seat Belt Claim

The Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has 59 safety standards that govern automotive components, including windshield wipers, internal trunk releases and seat belts. The standards set performance guidelines that manufacturers must follow.

Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan, was sued by the family of Thanh Williamson, 32, who died in 2002 in Utah as she was riding in a rear aisle seat in the second row of a 1993 MPV minivan.

When the minivan was manufactured, seat belts that buckled only over the lap -- without a shoulder harness -- were permitted by law for some back seat passengers. The current regulations took effect in 2007 and require new cars to have shoulder restraints in all forward-facing seats, including rear aisle seats.

The Williamson van struck a Jeep Wrangler that had become detached from a motor home that was towing it. The collision forced Williamson’s body to jackknife around her seatbelt, causing severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding, according to the lawsuit filed by her husband.

A California state appeals court barred the suit from going forward, ruling it was preempted by federal law. Mazda’s U.S. headquarters is in Irvine, California.

U.S. Approved

Maureen Mahoney, a Washington-based appellate lawyer at Latham & Watkins LLP who represents Mazda, said it would be unwise to subject carmakers to state law claims over seatbelts that federal regulators have approved.

Auto manufacturers could “face crushing liability in 50 states from 50 different systems,” she told a Chamber of Commerce gathering last month.

Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association in McLean, Virginia, said in an interview that exposing the industry to such lawsuits could mean “millions or possibly billions from liability claims” that would be passed along to car buyers.

Allison Zieve, a lawyer with Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington and one of the attorneys representing the Williamson family, said the auto industry is exaggerating.

“The manufacturers will still have a full opportunity to defend the case on the merits or present any other defense they might have, just like they did for years and years,” she said in an interview.

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 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.

The case is Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, 08-1314.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE