The U.S. Supreme Court has made a ruling against the Mazda Motor Corp. that will expose the automotive industry to potential new seatbelt lawsuits, reports Automotive News. SCOTUS ruled that Mazda must defend itself against claims of liability in the death of Trahn Williamson, who died in 2002 in Kane County, Utah, as the result of massive internal injuries caused during an accident by the rear lap-only belt of a 1993 Mazda MPV. Automakers can now be sued for not installing two-point seatbelts, despite federal regulation that had exempted lap-only belts in some rear seats before 2007.
Seatbelt law has changed nationwide
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 1 million cars in the U.S. in 2008 had at least one lap-only belt. Previously, all lower court seatbelt cases deferred to the 2007 federal law that exempted lawsuits by accident victims over seatbelt design. The 2000 Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. decision, which stated that federal law trumped state product liability law when it came to airbag installation, was also affected by the new SCOTUS seatbelt law decision.
“This case really reaffirms the importance of state tort law in achieving greater vehicle safety,” said Williamson family attorney Martin Buchanan.
As a result of the SCOTUS seatbelt ruling, share prices of automakers fell across the board. Ford Motor Co. dropped 63 cents to $14.60 per share as of 1:01 p.m. Eastern on the New York Stock Exchange. General Motors Co. was down $1.58 to $34.19.
Mazda ‘extremely disappointed’ by seatbelt lawsuit ruling
Jay Amestoy, Mazda’s U.S. Vice President of Government and Public Affairs, issued a statement following the SCOTUS ruling that assured that the automaker will “vigorously defend this vehicle when the case heads back to trial court” by maintaining that the NHTSA had intended for automakers to have flexibility as to which kind of seatbelt to install: lap-only or two-point lap-and-shoulder. The Williamson suit would interfere with the established policy, writes Amestoy.
Yet SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer stated that Mazda’s Geier case logic doesn’t apply to seatbelt law. In the case of airbags, federal regulators allowed manufacturers to experiment with different systems. With seatbelts, regulators in the Geier ruling were focused on the cost-effectiveness of shoulder straps and were not concerned over whether state court juries would require greater safety. In the new seatbelt law ruling, safety has trumped choice of what costs less.
“Unlike Geier, we do not believe here that choice is a significant regulatory objective,” Breyer wrote.