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Will Seat Belt Death Lawsuits Flood the Courts?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 01, 2011 6:10 AM

Until 2007, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 gave auto manufacturers a choice between lap belts and lap/shoulder belts when outfitting seats that are not placed against a car door. A handful of courts had ruled that the choice given by FMVSS 208 preempted state court product liability and injury suits, basically giving consumers no recourse for resultant seat belt deaths.

Last week, the Supreme Court changed this. It ruled that plaintiffs can now sue auto manufacturers for their failure to outfit rear middle seats with shoulder seat belts.

Middle seats equipped only with lap belts have likely been responsible for a number of crash-related injuries and seat belt deaths. Will state courts now see an influx of seat belt death lawsuits related to rear middle seats?

Probably not.

If a person sued in a jurisdiction that permitted these sorts of lawsuits, they cannot re-litigate their claims. In other words, if a person settled their lawsuit out of court, won a jury verdict, or was not compensated by a jury, they are barred from filing a new suit. Chances are a large chunk of people impacted by lap-only seat belts fall into this category.

Depending on when the injury occurred, it's also likely that a person who didn't sue can't suddenly do so now. Product liability and personal injury suits are governed by statutes of limitations, which often only give a plaintiff two to three years to bring suit. State law may have an exception that extends a statute of limitations in the event the law changes. This, however, is extremely rare.

More complicated is the fate of plaintiffs who attempted to sue, but who were told by the courts that their claim was preempted by federal law. When these plaintiffs filed suit they preserved their claims. Because they did this, state rules may allow them to re-file and finally have their case heard. If anyone" floods" the courts, it would be people who fall into this category.

As always, legal trends and lawsuits are difficult to predict. The future of rear middle seat belt death and injury lawsuits are state and fact dependent, meaning that those who want a definite answer to this question are just going to have to wait.

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