Faulty cars have been making all the news lately. Toyotas, especially, have been at the forefront of all this backlash for some time now. Just this morning I saw yet another article about how officials are blaming a faulty Toyota as the reason behind a fatal car crash.
So imagine if one of your loved ones was involved in an accident in one of these allegedly faulty cars. Further imagine that after the accident, you were not even allowed to bring a lawsuit against the car manufacturer because your claim was somehow “pre-empted.” While this is not happening with Toyota accidents (thank goodness), it’s exactly the case of what’s happening to one family whose loved one was killed in a 1993 Mazda minivan.
Apparently the passenger who was killed in this accident was sitting in the rear seat and was wearing a “lap-only” seatbelt. Family members are alleging that if the passenger had been wearing a “shoulder-and-lap” seatbelt instead, this death could have been prevented. I’m not an expert on all the scientific workings behind seatbelts, but from the face of this description, it seems like the family has made a legitimate claim and should be able to proceed with a lawsuit.
However, the Supreme Court is divided on whether to even allow this lawsuit to proceed because it’s allegedly pre-empted by federal law. The thinking goes that at the time the Mazda was made, federal law did not require car makers to install shoulder-and-lap seatbelts; a lap-only seatbelt was all the law required. (As a side note, this is no longer the law. Starting in September 2007 most passenger vehicles are required to have shoulder-and-lap seatbelts for rear seats).
Anyway, going back to the argument, family members and consumers understandably made the next logical point, which is that, just because Mazda complied with the federal law doesn’t mean that they’re immune from future lawsuits. However, Mazda is contending that federal regulators at the time knew exactly what they were doing when they enacted the law. Federal regulators had expressly considered the option of requiring shoulder-and-lap seatbelts, and had deliberately rejected that option for economical reasons. Thus, the federal regulators’ stance on seatbelt regulations back then was conclusive, and they had made it clear car makers were not to be sued for anything but failing to provide lap-only seatbelts.
So, the Supreme Court appears to be divided over this issue, and it will be interesting to see which way they eventually decide. Ultimately, the disposition of the case will probably turn on whether they really think the federal regulators had meant to make the law conclusive, in terms of exactly what kind of seatbelts were required. Or, if the federal regulators had only meant to set a minimum, rather than conclusive standard, on the type of seatbelts required.
Personally, I think that it’s kind of a pointless exercise to go about deciding the outcome of the case this way. I mean, courts can conduct all the research they want into the legislative history, but will they ever really be able to know what federal regulators were thinking at the time they enacted federal law? Even if they could find an answer to this, what’s the point of knowing what federal regulators were thinking anyway?
I mean, isn’t the issue really…what was Mazda thinking when they decided to forego the shoulder-and-lap seatbelts. For example, did Mazda think this was just an easy way to save on costs, and blindly look the other way in terms of consumer safety? Or did Mazda assess the situation, and come to their decision only after accurately concluding that shoulder-and-lap seatbelts were not necessarily more safe, economical, or practical to implement?
Of course, we’ll never get to explore these questions if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to not even let this lawsuit go forward based on pre-emption grounds. However, because it’s the Supreme Court deciding this case, they’re actually not bound to follow the law on pre-emption as strictly as other courts have to. They can instead choose to decide this case based on other factors, such as what’s best for public policy.
To me, this makes much more sense, because like I said before, who really knows (and cares) what federal regulators were thinking back then. But given public policy reasons, I believe it would be a good idea to let this lawsuit go forward. For example, allowing this lawsuit to go forward would give car makers more incentive to devise safer vehicles. Car makers would not be complacent with just meeting the minimum standards of safety by law, but would be more pro-active in considering consumer safety first.
However, I’m not the Supreme Court, and this case is obviously not for me to decide. It just seems ridiculous to me though, as a common observer, that a family whose loved one died in a car accident cannot even be allowed to bring a lawsuit against the car maker. I’m not saying the family is entitled to win by any means, but they should at least be able to have their day in court.