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Supreme Court Argues Seat Belt Laws

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Mazda Motor Corporation is currently facing a lawsuit over the safety of its seat belts. The auto manufacturer argues that it cannot be sued as long as its seat belts meet minimum safety requirements set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On the other hand, plaintiff attorneys argue the law clearly states that compliance with safety standards does not necessarily exempt Mazda from liability.

When the Supreme Court comes together to decide this issue, there is a danger of a tie vote. This is because Justice Elena Kagan[1] has disqualified herself from the case. If there is no majority decision, the lower court ruling remains in place. That decision favors automakers.

The Claim

The claim stems from an accident in Utah in 2002. Thanh Williamson, 32, was riding in the center back seat of a 1993 MPV minivan. When the van was made, only lap belts were required by the NHTSA. [2]

The accident happened when a Jeep Wrangler became detached from the motor home that was towing it. The van struck the Wrangler and the collision forced Williamson to endure severe fatal injuries when the lap belt cut sharply against her abdomen.

The Effect on Automakers

The NHTSA has 59 safety standards governing all aspects of motor vehicle safety. These standards set specific performance guidelines that car manufacturers must follow. In the past, the law has been interpreted in favor of car manufacturers under preemption. This defense rests on the basis that some matters are of such national importance that federal laws must be considered above state regulations. So long as automakers followed NHTSA rules, they were free from liability for resulting problems.

The automobile industry contends that a decision in favor of the plaintiff would remove preemptions, meaning that individual state laws would apply. Car companies would be subject to liability claims from all states, even when safety rules have been followed. This could mean a potential million or even billion dollar cost in liability claims that would eventually be passed on to car buyers.

Arguments against Automakers

Attorneys believe that the automobile industry exaggerates the negative effects the ruling may have. Car manufacturers will still have the opportunity to defend themselves from claims in court.

In addition, rulings from other industries have sided with consumers instead of manufacturers. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that consumers could sue drug makers even when the required FDA safety warnings and information was provided. Although that case hinges on approved equipment rather than approved safety warnings, a similar ruling could come about.

Contact Us

If you or someone you love has been injured in an automobile accident or if you would like to find out more about the lawsuits pending against Mazda Motor Corporation, contact our office. Our experienced attorneys will provide you with a free consultation and work to ensure that you receive all monetary compensation you deserve.


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-02/mazda-seatbelt-lawsuit-prompts-u-s-supreme-court-appeal-for-claims-shield.html
[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703506904575592562770384770.html

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