U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled they may divide, perhaps evenly, in a case involving Mazda Motor Corp. that could open automakers to more consumer lawsuits over vehicle safety.
Hearing arguments today in Washington, several justices hinted they would let accident victims sue even when automakers meet minimum federal standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. “A minimum by definition gives manufacturers options,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Others, including Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested they would vote to limit lawsuits and reinforce a 2000 decision that shielded carmakers from some claims.
“You have a jury with an injured plaintiff,” Roberts said. “They are not likely to weigh heavily the fact that this would cost 3 extra cents per car fleet-wide. I think that is the sort of thing NHTSA considers.”
The 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 victory for the automakers without setting a national precedent.
The auto industry is asking the court to bolster the 2000 decision, which said federal law shields automakers from state law claims that manufacturers didn’t move quickly enough to install air bags in the years before they became mandatory in new cars.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, food producers and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side.
NHTSA, an agency within the Transportation Department, 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.
Justice Stephen Breyer hinted he was inclined to defer to the federal agency, which says its standards shouldn’t shield carmakers from suits claiming they didn’t do enough to make vehicles as safe as possible.
“Who is most likely to know what 40,000 pages of agency records actually mean and say? People in the agency,” Breyer said. “If the government continuously says, ‘This is what the agency means’ and the agency is telling them, ‘Yes, this is what it means,’ the chances are they will come to a better, correct conclusion than I will with my law clerks.”
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 seat belt, causing severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding, according to the lawsuit filed by her husband.
The lawyer for the Williamson family, Martin Buchanan, argued that automakers “should be held accountable for the choices they make.”
Gregory G. Garre, the attorney who argued the case for Mazda, said NHTSA “specifically gave manufacturers the option of installing one type of seat belt or the other.”
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.
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 drug companies aren’t shielded from suit by the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a treatment and its packaging information.
The case is Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, 08-1314.