U.S. Supreme Court Opens Automakers to Seatbelt Lawsuits

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the auto industry to new lawsuits over seatbelt design, ruling that a Mazda Motor Corp. unit must defend against claims pressed by the family of a woman killed while riding in the back of a minivan.

The justices today said that automakers can be sued for not equipping seats with a shoulder strap, ruling that companies aren’t immunized by a federal regulation that allowed lap-only belts in some rear seats prior to 2007. The unanimous ruling said regulators intended to set only a minimum standard.

The ruling marks a change in the law in much of the country. Every lower court to consider the issue had concluded that the federal rules preempted suits by accident victims over seatbelt design. More than 1 million cars on the road as of 2008 had at least one lap-only belt.

“This case really reaffirms the importance of state tort law in achieving greater vehicle safety,” said Martin Buchanan, a San Diego lawyer for the family of Thanh Williamson, who died in the 2002 crash.

Auto shares plunged following the ruling. General Motors Co. fell $1.18, or 3.3 percent, to $34.59 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading at 4:15 p.m. Ford Motor Co. fell 37 cents, or 2.43 percent, to $14.86, its lowest closing price since Nov. 2.

Product Liability

The ruling scales back a 2000 Supreme Court decision that said federal law insulates automakers from claims under state product-liability law that they should have moved more quickly to install air bags. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a concurring opinion today that lower courts had been reading too much into that ruling.

Mazda said it is “extremely disappointed” with the ruling. The company will “vigorously defend this vehicle when the case heads back to trial court,” Jay Amestoy, Mazda’s U.S. vice president for government and public affairs, said in a statement.

Williamson died when she was riding in an aisle seat equipped with a lap belt in the second row of a 1993 Mazda MPV in Kane County, Utah. The van struck a Jeep Wrangler that had become detached from a motor home that was towing it.

The collision caused Williamson’s body to jackknife around her seatbelt, causing severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding, according to the complaint, now pending in a state court in Santa Ana, California.

Shoulder Straps

Under National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules put in place in 1989, shoulder straps were required only for so-called outboard seats -- those next to a window, rather than alongside an aisle or in the center of a row. Current regulations, in effect since 2007, require new cars to have three-point belts -- a lap belt plus a shoulder strap -- in all forward-facing seats.

Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan, contended that NHTSA wanted carmakers to have flexibility as to which type of belt to install and that the Williamson suit would interfere with that policy. Its argument tracked the high court’s reasoning in the 2000 air bag case, known as Geier v. American Honda Motor Co.

Breyer said that logic didn’t apply in the seatbelt case. With air bags, he said, regulators wanted to let manufacturers experiment with different passive restraint systems. By contrast, regulators were focused on the cost-effectiveness of shoulder straps and weren’t concerned that state court juries might require greater safety measures.

“Unlike Geier, we do not believe here that choice is a significant regulatory objective,” Breyer wrote.

Agency Views

Breyer pointed to the Obama administration’s contention that lawsuits wouldn’t interfere with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s work. “The agency’s own views should make a difference,” he wrote.

The ruling “corrects a widespread misreading of the court’s prior decision in Geier,” Buchanan said.

A California state appeals court barred the suit from going forward. The dead woman’s husband, Delbert Williamson, appealed to the nation’s highest court.

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