By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:41 PM
A federal regulation that allows automakers to choose what kind of seat belts to install in minivans does not protect the companies from being sued if they pick one that is less safe, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a unanimous ruling, the justices said a lawsuit can go forward in California courts to try to hold Mazda liable for installing lap belts instead of lap-and-shoulder belts in its 1993 MPV minivan. The family of Thanh Williamson contends that the lap belt did not properly restrain her in a fatal 2002 accident.
It was the court's second case in two days examining when federal laws or regulations "preempt" lawsuits filed to hold companies liable. The contrasting decisions show the difficulty in predicting the court's jurisprudence in this area and underscore the importance of the specifics of each case.
In Tuesday's case, the court ruled 6 to 2 that federal law protects pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits filed by parents who claim that vaccines harmed their children. Compensation can come only through a federal program the government set up to deal with the negative side effects that sometimes accompany immunizations, the court said.
In Wednesday's Mazda decision, the court scrutinized the Department of Transportation's reasoning for its seat-belt requirements.
The department said in 1989 that lap-and-shoulder belts were required for minivan front seats and rear outer seats, but that companies had a choice of which belt to install for the rear middle or aisle seats. (The regulations were changed in 2007 to require lap-and-shoulder belts for all seats.)
Mazda argued that allowing lawsuits challenging the company's decision would essentially take away the choice. And it pointed to the court's 2000 decision in Geier v. American Honda , which barred lawsuits over a carmaker's decision not to install air bags in favor of some other restraining device.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the Geier decision, and he explained in 12 pages why Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America is different.
In Geier, he said, the federal regulation was to ensure that manufacturers retained a choice of what kind of device to install. Allowing lawsuits for making the wrong choice would take away the option, he said.
In the Mazda decision, Breyer said, the department's main reason for not requiring lap-and-shoulder belts in minivans was the cost. "But that fact - the fact that DOT made a negative judgment about cost-effectiveness - cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid common-law tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion," Breyer wrote.
The Obama administration supported the lawsuit in the Mazda case, and sided with the vaccine maker in that case.
In both decisions, Justice Sonia Sotomayor made clear that she is a strong supporter of allowing consumers to go to court unless there is an explicit preemption in federal law.
She objected to the court's decision in the vaccine case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth , accusing the majority of ignoring Congress's intention "to leave the courthouse doors open for children who have suffered severe injuries from defectively designed vaccines."
She concurred with the Mazda decision Wednesday but wrote separately to "emphasize the court's rejection of an overreading of Geier that has developed since that opinion was issued."
Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a separate concurrence. He said that he agreed with the outcome but that the court had made a simple decision too complicated.
Instead of a "psychoanalysis" of regulators' thinking, Thomas said, the court should note that the Safety Act contained a clause saying that "compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law."
The stand brought Thomas rare praise from a liberal group, the Constitutional Accountability Center, which supported Williamson.
Elizabeth Wydra, the group's chief counsel, said progressives might be surprised "that it is Justice Clarence Thomas, in this case, whose concurring opinion sets out a vision of constitutional federalism that preserves the right of states to protect the health and safety of their citizens."