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Supreme Court Gives Green Light in Lawsuit Over Seat Belts

Source: LA Times

Posted on 23 Feb 2011

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Federal regulations setting vehicle safety standards do not bar lawsuits seeking damages from automakers for installing lap-only seat belts was the unanimous ruling held by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling held that a California lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp over a fatal 2002 collision involving a 1993 Mazda minivan could proceed. A passenger sitting in a rear seat and wearing a lap-only seat belt was killed.

The lawsuit by the family of the passenger, Thanh Williamson, claimed that the minivan was defectively designed because it lacked a lap-and-shoulder seat belt for the rear seat.

Mazda said it complied with federal safety regulations in effect at the time and that an appellate court in California correctly ruled the product liability lawsuit could not go forward.

The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court ruling.

Justice Stephen Breyer said in the court's opinion that the federal safety regulation does not preempt state tort lawsuits claiming manufacturers should have installed lap-and-shoulder belts, instead of lap-only belts, on rear inner seats.

The ruling adopted the position argued by the Obama administration, which said the California and other courts have interpreted federal law too broadly in barring lawsuits against automakers that put in lap-only seat belts. It said the federal regulations were meant only as minimum standards.

The vehicle safety regulations have been changed, and most passenger vehicles built after September 1, 2007, include shoulder-and-lap seat belts in all rear seats that face forward.

The administration said the issue still was important and estimated that more than 1 million vehicles in the United States still have some lap-only belts.


Larry Neilson Feb 23 2011 2:11PM Report Abuse
I realize that you can sue anyone at any given time for just about anything, but think about it. Doesn't this article speak to the exact problem with our tort system. the judge says state tort law trumps federal law. I have never been able to buy a new car in California without California emissions. If the car was purchased new in California in 1993 and was sold without conforming shoulder belts, isn't the state of California liable for allowing the vehicle to be sold that way? Someone has to wake up and realize that we end up paying these claims in higher prices that are passed on as a result of more regulation and higher insurance costs. In 1993 someone walked into a Mazda dealership and bought a 1993 Mazda minivan. It's a terrible tragedy that someone died in an accident involving that car. But I don't think its Mazda's fault.
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