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Compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards May Not Equal Preemption

Mar.01.2011

On Wednesday, February 23, 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that weakens the protection that federal preemption provides automobile manufacturers from tort liability in certain situations. In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., the Court determined that compliance with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) does not shield a manufacturer from tort liability when a safety measure proves “inadequate” unless setting out options for compliance is a significant objective of the applicable FMVSS. The Court distinguished its important 2000 preemption decision Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., which found that compliance with a FMVSS did preempt a state common law tort claim, relying in large part on the differences between the safety measures at issue in the two cases.

In Geier, the Supreme Court held that a FMVSS that requires manufacturers to equip vehicles with “a” passive restraint system preempted a state law tort suit claiming that a “specific” restraint system – airbags – should have been used. The Geier Court reasoned that a tort outcome requiring a particular safety measure conflicted directly with the applicable FMVSS’ significant objective of choice – namely, allowing manufacturers a choice of compliant passive restraint devices. Although the Geier Court grounded its decision in the FMVSS’ legislative history and the views of the Department of Transportation on the purpose of the particular FMVSS at hand, the Court did not expressly limit its holding to the facts or standard before it. As a result, for more than ten years courts largely applied Geier to find that compliance with a FMVSS precludes common law tort claims alleging that compliant safety measures are inadequate.

The Williamson decision appears to end automatic application of federal preemption of FMVSS. The case arose out of a fatal car accident involving three passengers; the two passengers wearing lap-and-shoulder belts survived the accident, while the passenger wearing a simple lap belt died from her injuries. The estate and family of the deceased passenger brought a tort suit against Mazda, claiming that the lap belt was inadequate. Relying on Geier, Mazda argued that lap belts complied with the applicable FMVSS, and thus the state law tort claims are preempted.

Rejecting Mazda’s position, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, detailed the rationale behind the Geier opinion, then addressed the divergent legislative purposes of the FMVSS at issue there and the one before the Court in Williamson. Allowing a manufacturer to select the type of passive restraint it installs in its vehicles – as with the FMVSS in Geier – furthers legislative desires to foster technological development, reduce injuries, appeal to the public, and mandate cost-efficient safety measures. In contrast, the Court found in Williamson that allowing manufacturers to select between the two options for safety compliance in this case (lap versus lap-and-shoulder belts) only addresses minor cost concerns and the logistical difficulties that lap-and-shoulder belts can create, not significant legislative objectives. Further, the Williamson Court found that the government expressly rejected air bags as the solely permissible passive restraint devices, yet expressed a preference for lap-and-shoulder belts in the FMVSS legislative history at issue in Williamson. Based upon these differing legislative purposes, the Court determined that a state law tort suit alleging that a manufacturer failed to meet the standard of care because it did not install lap-and-shoulder belts did not conflict with an applicable FMVSS.

Justice Sotomayor joined the majority, but concurred to emphasize that “the mere fact that an agency regulation allows manufacturers a choice between options is insufficient to justify implied preemption; courts should only find preemption where evidence exists that an agency has a regulatory objective.” 

The Court cited its holding in Williamson on Monday, February 28, 2011, when it ordered the Supreme Court of South Carolina to reconsider its recent ruling that Ford’s compliance with a FMVSS preempted a state law tort suit. In that case, Priester v. Cromer, South Carolina’s high court found that Ford could not be liable for installing tempered – as opposed to laminated – glass side windows because the purpose of the applicable FMVSS is to provide manufacturers a choice between the two different glazing materials.

The Williamson decision leaves in its wake uncertainty about when compliance with a FMVSS is a shield to tort liability. When selecting safety equipment for its vehicles, a manufacturer is now faced with the task of interpreting legislative histories to divine whether there is truly a choice between alternative safety measures. Manufacturers facing this grey and complex undertaking may adopt the most stringent safety standards permissible under an applicable FMVSS to minimize future tort liability exposure.

Please contact us if you have any questions on the implications of Williamson.
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Scott L. Winkelman
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2972
Email: swinkelman@crowell.com
Daniel T. Campbell
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2544
Email: dcampbell@crowell.com
Rebecca Baden Chaney
Counsel – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2772
Email: rchaney@crowell.com