High Court to Hear Air-Bag Case
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would use a District woman's case to decide whether automobile makers can be sued for failing to install air bags at a time when federal regulations did not require them to do so.
Hundreds of personal injury lawsuits relating to the lack of air bags are pending, and a decision in the case could affect claims arising from automobiles manufactured from the mid-1980s until 1997, when regulations mandating air bags in all new cars took effect.
Although the court will not officially begin its new term until the first Monday of October, it released the first of its orders for the 1999-2000 session yesterday, adding six new cases to the 29 it had carried over from last term.
On Jan. 16, 1992, Alexis Geier was seriously injured when her 1987 Honda Accord crashed into a tree on MacArthur Boulevard. She was wearing a seat belt and shoulder harness, but claimed that the car was negligently and defectively designed and that if it had been equipped with a driver's-side air bag, her head and other injuries would not have been so serious.
The D.C. Circuit appeals court said making Honda liable for its failure to install an air bag in 1987 would interfere with the federal government's policy at the time of making air bags only "one of several options car manufacturers could choose to comply with the passive restraint requirement." When the 1987 Accord was made, federal regulations gave Honda the option of installing automatic seat belts or air bags.
The appeals court said the variety of options was central to the government's policy of encouraging public acceptance of air bags.
In Grier's appeal, her lawyers argued that Congress did not intend to preempt state common law claims when it enacted the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and allowed subsequent regulations. They contend federal safety law permits manufacturers to be liable for defects even if they meet minimum federal safety standards. Oral arguments in the case of Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. will be held in December and a ruling is expected in 2000.
Among the other cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear yesterday are a dispute from Washington state over its regulation of oceangoing oil tankers and efforts to protect the environment, arising from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and a case testing whether a runoff election is required in last November's governor's race in the U.S. territory of Guam. The justices will review rulings that declared null the victory of Gov. Carl Gutierrez, the Democratic incumbent, over former two-term Republican Gov. Joseph Ada.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company