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Automakers Can Be Sued For Seat Belt Deaths, Says Supreme Court

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on February 25, 2011 5:51 AM

Ever wonder why the rear middle seats in older cars are often without shoulder seat belts, leaving passengers to hold on tight in the event of a crash? Isn't the lack of shoulder restraints going to result in seat belt deaths?

A little known fact is that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, until 2007, permitted automakers to choose between lap and shoulder seat belts when outfitting rear middle seats.

A better known fact is that this choice has left some people dead or severely injured.

Thanh Williamson was the victim of one of those seat belt deaths. Sitting in the back of a minivan, strapped in only by a lap belt, she died as a result of a car crash in 2002. Her family contends that the lap belt didn't restrain her properly, and that Mazda should have installed the more effective safety belt, as it was readily available. A lawsuit was filed in California.

After the California courts dismissed the case, insisting that FMVSS 208 preempted any state tort claims regarding rear middle seat lap and shoulder belts, the Supreme Court agreed to take the appeal. It determined that the lawsuit is not preempted, and that personal injury lawsuits involving rear lap and shoulder seat belts can go forward.

Preemption occurs when a federal law conflicts with state law. This case focuses on a subset of preemption doctrine that considers whether a state law "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of federal law." In other words, would allowing people to sue an automaker for failing to install rear middle shoulder seat belts somehow impede the goals of FMVSS 208?

In deciding that there would be no impediment, the Court pointed to the fact that the safety of rear seats was not a significant regulatory objective when FMVSS 208 was passed in 1989. Looking at the regulation's history, the only reason the Department of Transportation gave manufacturers the choice was because requiring shoulder seat belts would not be cost effective, even though it was known that lap belts were more likely to cause seat belt deaths.

Basically, the decision to permit the choice was monetary in nature, which, according to the Court, demonstrates that rear seat belt safety was not a regulatory objective, and thus not an intended accomplishment of federal law. Its unimportance in the overall regulatory scheme left room for state law to permit lawsuits.

What does this mean for you?

If you own a car that has seats that are only equipped with lap belts, federal law will probably not prevent you from suing the manufacturer should that seat belt cause injury or death to a passenger. However, you'll still have to contend with state law.

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