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Federal Seat Belt Ruling Pre-empts Lawsuits

Posted by Jane Akre
Thursday, October 16, 2008 3:10 PM EST
Category: On The Road, Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Federal Pre-Emption, Torts, Torm Reform, Auto Safety, Roof Crush Standards, Seat Belts, Public Citizen, Consumer Protection, Seventh Amendment

A new federal seat belt ruling makes it less likely citizens can seek remedies in court.



IMAGE SOURCE: ©iStockphoto/ rolled minivan/ author: Ron Bailey 


You might not have noticed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) final ruling on seat belts,  but it could change your life if you are ever injured by a defective or missing seatbelt.

NHTSA has inserted language that prohibits or precludes your right to hold the auto manufacturers responsible if you are injured. 

Federal pre-emption language essentially says that federal law trumps state law. State courts are where lawsuits are filed. Federal standards are what automakers follow.

Essentially the argument is if an auto design is approved by the federal NHTSA, an injured consumer cannot challenge that authority with a lawsuit. 

Part of the “tort reform” movement, federal pre-emption has been quietly eroding the Bill of Rights’ Seventh Amendment which allows for the right to a jury trial.

The NHTSA rule establishes a procedure for determining the number of designated seats in passenger vehicles (designated seating position or DSP) that weigh less than 10,000 pounds.

Part of the final ruling improves safety by requiring that all auxiliary and jump seats have a seat belt.

At the same time, NHTSA will decide how many seatbelts each type of vehicle will have, therefore reducing the obligation on automakers to install additional safety belts for designated seating positions.

“Now NHTSA says to the manufacturers, you don’t have to go above the number even though more could conceivably be in that car,” says Gerie Voss, American Association for Justice (AAJ) director of Regulatory Affairs to IB News.   

So if four children or small adults can comfortably be seated in a bench seat, where there is a requirement for three seat belts, the liability on auto makers is pre-empted under the unprecedented expansion of federal power.  

Lee Weisbrod, president of AAJ says before when the pre-emption language was only in the preamble, “the agency was giving an advisory opinion.”  Now he notes the language is in the body of rule and is contrary to congressional intent.

Taking in public comment, NHTSA heard from the auto manufacturers and from Public Citizen.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen says, "The fear of lawsuits is one of the greatest incentives automakers have to build stronger and safer vehicles. For NHTSA to suggest that automakers should have blanket immunity from consumer liability lawsuits means that more defective vehicles will be manufactured, fewer will be recalled, the public will have less information about injury causation and more families will needlessly lose loved ones on our roads each day.”

And Public Citizen, in a 2005 letter, says NHTSA failed to show it has authority to pre-empt state tort actions in rulemaking. 

The non-profit group noted that as the Supreme Court held in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., the federal National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act’s savings clause, preserves state tort action from express preemption.

(In that case, Alexis Geier suffered severe head and facial injuries while driving a 1987 Honda Accord that did not have a driver-side airbag.  She and her parents claimed the car maker was negligent in not having the airbag.  In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Honda saying the “no airbag” lawsuit conflicts with the objective of the federal Act.)

Claybrook, says that NHTSA has used that pre-emptive language 20 times in the past few years.

Most recently new roof crush standards that say any auto manufacturer who complies with the standard should not be held liable for any injuries suffered by those inside the vehicle.   #

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