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Supreme Court Case May Determine Future of Products Liability Claims

One of the principles that are often at play in litigation is the subject of federal preemption. This concept means that when a state law and a federal law are in conflict, the federal law governs (or in other words, pre-empts the state law). While this may sound like merely legal technicalities, it has very real implications, particularly in products liability litigation.

One such case was recently argued before the Supreme Court. On November 3, the Court heard arguments in Williamson v. Mazda, a case stemming from an incident in which a rider in a Mazda minivan suffered fatal abdominal injuries in a crash. The injuries were caused by her seat belt, which only crossed her lap and didn’t include the now-common second shoulder belt that crosses the chest. At issue in the case is whether the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that govern car safety restraints (and did not require a shoulder belt for the vehicle when it was manufactured in 1993) should effectively shut down any state law claims for liability against Mazda.

The Williamson family, who lost their beloved wife and mother in the accident, has so far been unsuccessful in their court battles, because when the Supreme Court last looked at the matter in the case of Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., it ruled that Honda was under no obligation to install airbags, according to these same federal safety standards. The Geier case has thus been used in state courts by many manufacturers to block lawsuits in which the manufacturer was substantially in compliance with federal law.

But the Williamsons argue that the Geier case has been incorrectly applied to their case (and others) because it effectively lets manufacturers off the hook provided they have complied with the federal standards, even though the FMVSS regulations specifically say that “compliance does not exempt a person from liability at common law”-in other words, complying with the federal law doesn’t prevent a manufacturer from being held to a higher standard in a state law claim.

The Williamsons aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Last year, the Obama administration asked then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan to argue in favor of the Supreme Court taking the case. Now that she is a member of the Court, Kagan had to recuse herself from the arguments and deliberations in the case. With only eight justices hearing the case, for the Geier decision to overturned in any significant way, it will have to be by a 5-3 vote.

It is possible that the Court will elect not to overturn the Geier decision, but to limit it to the facts of that particular case and to stress that state law claims may still be made, even if the manufacturer has complied with federal regulations. This would be an important victory for both the Williamson family and for anyone who suffers injuries that are caused by defective products.