The Supreme Court is gearing up to reexamine (and maybe redefine) the scope of federal preemption in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America. The case involves a state tort claim based on Mazda’s failure to install a certain type of seat belts in specific seating positions, where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave auto manufacturers the choice of which type of belts to install through passage of a federal safety standard. The issue before the Court is whether that safety standard – which offers manufacturers flexibility in design choice – preempts a common law claim that places conflicting requirements on manufacturers.
In a 2000 decision involving a federal safety standard requiring auto manufacturers to place driver’s side airbags in some but not all of their 1987 vehicles, the Supreme Court preempted a state defective design action contending that Honda was negligent for failing to install a driver’s side airbag. Geier v American Honda Motor Company, 529 U.S. 861 (2000). Nine years later, however, the Court took what petitioners in Mazda believe to be a more limited (and appropriate) view of preemption, allowing a state claim for failure to warn of the dangers of administrating nausea medication through a certain methodology to proceed, notwithstanding the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the manufacturer’s warning label. Wyeth v. Levine, 129 S.Ct. 1187 (2009). Apart from the Geier/Wyeth battle, resolution of the issue in Mazda is further complicated by the inclusion of an express preemption clause in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, as well as a “savings clause” which states that “compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard…does not exempt a person from liability at common law.”
DRI has filed an amicus brief urging the Court to adhere to the preemption framework set forth in Geier and hold that common law claims that actually conflict with federal law and frustrate congressional purpose are preempted. As the brief explains, DRI’s members - many of whom represent federally-regulated entities – need clarity in the law in order to effectively advise their clients on permissible conduct and its outer limits. DRI’s amicus brief cautions that allowing state tort claims such as these to proceed will strip virtually all certainty from the civil defense arena and open up even the most prudent of businesses to potential debilitating liability where they are simply doing what the federal government said they could do. If the Court rules against Mazda, how do we successfully steer our business clients through the maze of standards imposed by state tort judgments, which may vary widely between states? Or should we simply tell them to buckle up and prepare for a bumpy ride?