Court weighs allowing Mazda seat belt lawsuit

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 4:57 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court debated Wednesday whether to let Mazda be sued in California courts because a woman died while wearing a seat belt across her lap in her family's minivan.

Thanh Williamson's family wants to sue Mazda Motor of America Inc. because it made its 1993 Mazda MPV minivan with only lap seat belts in the middle seat of the van's second row. Williamson, who was from Utah, died in a 2002 accident; her family says her body jackknifed around the lap belt causing fatal internal injuries.

But Mazda said it is immune from lawsuits because the federal government in 1989 gave it a choice of installing either lap or shoulder-and-lap seat belts in the middle rear seat. California courts have agreed, throwing out the family's lawsuit claiming Mazda was negligent by using lap belts instead of shoulder-and-lap belts in that seat.

Lower court judges said federal approval of using either lap or shoulder-and-lap belts trumps complaints filed in state courts.

The Williamsons' lawyer, Martin N. Buchanan, said they should be allowed to pursue their lawsuit because making automobile manufacturers face customer lawsuits in state courts would encourage them to make their vehicles safer.

"I believe common law has an important role to play, not only in compensating victims but also in providing manufacturers with an incentive to develop safer vehicles, even safer than the federal minimum standards," Buchanan said.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy said allowing the lawsuit could frustrate the entire point of giving car companies a choice.

"You are saying that once the government gives the manufacturer a choice, then the jury, the tort system, can second-guess it, and that is not consistent with a likely government intent to allow the manufacturers a choice based on the technical advances to that date," Kennedy said.

"Justice Kennedy, I don't think that the government gave manufacturers a choice," Buchanan replied. "It gave them two different options for complying with a minimum standard, but it didn't suggest that foreclosing one of those options would in any way frustrate its objectives."

The Obama administration sided with the Williamsons, saying that the government meant to encourage the installation of shoulder-and-lap belts.

Shoulder-and-lap belts, also called Type 2 seat belts, are "safer, more effective and to be encouraged," said William M. Jay, assistant to the solicitor general.

By not mandating them, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "wasn't making a pre-emptive judgment that Type 2 seat belts, therefore, should not be installed. And for that reason there is no frustration of anything that NHTSA had in mind in the 1989 rulemaking by allowing this tort suit to proceed," Jay said.

Mazda's lawyer, Gregory Garre, said putting a shoulder-and-lap belt in that seat would have caused its own problems back then, which is why the federal government didn't require it and why the lawsuit was correctly thrown out.

"It could not have been more clear that they did not want to mandate the Type 2 belt, the very rule that the petitioners want to mandate through this state law tort action. They didn't want to do it because they were concerned about child safety, they were concerned about aisle safety, they were concerned about practicability," Garre said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that allowing the lawsuit would force car companies to be more careful about what they install in their cars.

"Every design choice a manufacturer makes under almost any situation where the common law is in effect puts it at risk that a jury will decide whether it did enough or not, under cost-benefit analysis and technology. So I don't know why, when the agency creates a minimum by choice or not, it should be implicitly pre-empted from the application of state law," Sotomayor said.

Justice Elena Kagan, who was solicitor general before joining the court, did not participate in the case because she worked on it while in her former position.

The case is Williamson v. Mazda, 08-1314.

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