FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Auto Safety and the Supreme Court

Any day now, the Supreme Court will come down with its decision in Williamson v. Mazda.

In that case, the court will decide whether federal auto safety law pre-empts state common law.

The auto industry is watching the case closely.

Because it could put a damper on state product liability lawsuits.

The case focuses on a federal rule that allows auto makers to use a seat belt only ? without a shoulder belt ? on seats next to an aisle in the middle row of a minivan.

In the case in question, the passenger in that middle row seat next to the aisle was killed when the Mazda minivan she was riding in was involved in a head on collision. She was wearing the only belt available ? the seat belt ? and she jack-knifed ? causing fatal internal injuries.

Mazda argued that the federal rule allowing it to put only a seat belt on that middle row seat ? without a shoulder belt ? pre-empts state common law.

The appellate court agreed with Mazda and the plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Auto safety expert Byron Bloch was at the Supreme Court when the justices heard the oral argument in the case last November.

He’s not optimistic about the outcome.

“Chief Justice Roberts focused on various of the economic factors,” Bloch said in an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter last week. “He thought that was an important consideration. Having a shoulder belt might cost Mazda more money. And shouldn’t Mazda be allowed to make economic decisions with regard to these various safety devices in a vehicle?”

“I was personally disappointed in having our Chief Justice pursue such a line of questioning ? presuming that this reflected his thinking on the matter.”

“It felt to me like it was a trade off between a few extra pennies or dollars per vehicle ? versus a major safety feature ? a shoulder belt ? to make a much safer restraint system.”

“Justices Scalia and Alito similarly seemed to be more interested Mazda’s position and giving Mazda more options and more freedoms ? the ability to make economic decisions as well.”

“I was personally disappointed in hearing that line of questioning.”

“In contrast, I thought there were more compassionate concerns raised by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.”

“Justice Kagan was recused from the case. Before she became a member of the Supreme Court, she had been the U.S. Solicitor General and was representing the U.S. in this case.”

So, it could be a 4-4 decision?

“It may be a 4-4 decision,” Bloch says. “If it is, that essentially leaves in place the appeals court decision, and the ruling there was to grant pre-emption.”

“A 4-4 decision would not have the strength of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in favor of pre-emption, but it would unfortunately leave standing the pre-emption ruling in California.”

“By the way, lap and shoulder belts can easily be built into the seats, so that you don’t have the shoulder belt hanging from a roof rail and coming across the narrow aisle way.”

This is the second time that the Supreme Court has visited the question of pre-emption in auto safety cases.

In 2000, the Supreme Court decided Geier v. Honda.

Bloch said that in Geier, the Supreme Court upheld pre-emption from liability.

“The plaintiff in that case wanted to take Honda to court over the failure of Honda to have an airbag system,” Bloch said. “The Supreme Court ruled that federal law pre-empted state liability law.”

Bloch says that over the years, the auto industry has been strategically building defenses against state product liability laws.

“Forty years ago, the auto companies would ask the court for a jury instruction that the vehicle at-issue complied with federal standards,” Bloch said.

“Let’s call that phase one.”

“In phase two in the 1980s, the auto companies would ask for a presumption that the vehicle was reasonably safe because it complied with the federal auto safety standard.”

“So, phase one ? a jury instruction asking that the vehicle complied.”

“Phase two ? a presumption of reasonable safety.”

“Then phase three ? they move from asking for a presumption to asking for pre-emption.”

“So, defense lawyers representing auto companies became more bold in challenging these jury trials.”

This despite the fact that the federal auto safety law itself explicity states that “compliance with any federal motor vehicle standard under this title does not exempt any person from any liability under common law.”

The auto safety movement has made progress over the years ? dropping the death rate per hundred million miles traveled from about 4 in the 1970s to about 1.2 today.

But Bloch says that still means that we have today 35,000 dead every year and 3 million injuries in motor vehicle crashes.

And that’s unacceptable.

Bloch is part of an international movement called Vision Zero.

“It’s the vision of zero fatalities in motor vehicle accidents. Internationally, there are 1.3 million fatalities per year in motor vehicle related accidents,” Bloch says.

“Plus there are many millions of severe and disabling injuries.”

How could zero fatalities happen?

“To use one example, we could eliminate 10,000 deaths a year and 5,000 quadriplegics a year in the U.S. in rollover accidents with stronger roofs and safer side window glass.,” Bloch says.

“It is perfectly sensible and compassionate to say that the goal should be zero deaths and zero permanent disabling injuries like quadriplegia in motor vehicle accidents.”

“You try to prevent the accident. And then you make a crashworthy vehicle to protect the occupant in the case of an accident.”

Bloch is proud to have contributed to a new Smithsonian American History exhibit called Inventing Automobile Safety.

“It shows safety developments over the decades, like the padded dash, safety collapsible steering column, and lap-and-shoulder seatbelts,” Bloch said.

“The exhibit describes some of my work in encouraging vehicle safety, such as helping prompt safer fuel tanks, and how the court cases involving the Ford Pinto served as a catalyst.”

“Ironically, that’s why there shouldn’t be pre-emption that might preclude such justifiable court cases which help stimulate safer vehicles.”

[For the complete q/a format of the Interview with Byron Bloch, see 25 Corporate Crime Reporter 3(12), January 17, 2011, print edition only.]

RUSSELL MOKHIBER edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.

 

More articles by:

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail