The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that plaintiffs can pursue product liability lawsuits against automakers that used lap-only seatbelts, despite federal regulations designating the design as meeting minimum safety standards.
The decision, handed down on February 23, will allow a wrongful death lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp. to move forward, and could also open the door for personal injury lawsuits against other car manufacturers.
The ruling may also impact other cases where manufacturers claim that they should be immune from liability because the design of their products met minimum federal safety standards in place at the time.
The case involved a lawsuit was brought by the family of Thanh Williamson, who died in a 2002 auto accident while riding in a 1993 Mazda minivan that was only equipped with lap restraints in the rear seat. The lawsuit claimed that Mazda’s design was defective because it did not include lap-and-shoulder seat belts for the rear seats.
Mazda argued that because the design met federal vehicle safety standards at the time, which only required lap seat belts, the company should be shielded from liability lawsuits; an argument known as preemption.
In a unanimous decision, Supreme Court justices rejected that argument and the opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer points out that regulators actively encouraged automakers to go beyond the lap restraints, even though they weren’t required. Justice Breyer said that lower courts, who ruled on behalf of Mazda, interpreted an earlier 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting lawsuits against car companies that did not supply airbags too broadly.
Some legal experts say that the decision could push the auto industry away from meeting the bare minimum safety standards and more towards using the best available safety technology. The argument that better safety technology exists, but is not being widely used by car manufacturers is a regular complaint in a number of car product liability lawsuits; particularly in SUV rollover accident claims.
The decision also means that the industry may face exposure to more product liability lawsuits on behalf of victims of car accidents who suffered injuries because vehicles were only used lap belts in some seats.
Because of last week’s decision, the Williamson family is clear to pursue their lawsuit against Mazda. The merits of the lawsuit itself will be determined in a lower court.