Breaking News

Opinion analysis: Preemption trimmed in automobile product liability litigation

In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America (No. 08-1314), the Court today reversed a California decision and resuscitated a product liability claim involving the failure to install lap/shoulder-combination seatbelts in a minivan.  The Court unanimously held that implied preemption under Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. (2000), was unavailable.  Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined in full by six other Justices; Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion, while Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment.  (Justice Kagan was recused from the case.)  The effect of Williamson is to limit preemption under Geier to situations where the administrative record demonstrates a significant agency commitment to manufacturer choice.
Applying the same analysis of preemption under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 that it created in Geier, the Court determined that “seatbelt choice” was, in and of itself, “not a significant objective of the federal regulation” in question, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (“FMVSS”) 208.  As in Geier, the Court held that the Act’s preemption and savings clauses essentially cancelled each other out, foreclosing a finding of express preemption, but not restricting the operation of ordinary implied preemption principles.  The implied preemption result differed from Geier, however, because unlike Geier, the Court could not conclude that preserving a manufacturer’s ability to choose among seatbelt options was a “significant objective” of the federal scheme.  Critically, the decision whether or not to require airbags – the issue in Geier – had been a lengthy regulatory process, throughout which the choice of active (seatbelt) versus passive (airbag) passenger restraints had assumed great importance.  The regulatory history of lap/shoulder belts in minivans, the Court concluded, contained none of these elements.  Rather, the agency’s decision not to mandate a more elaborate restraint system was motivated primarily by cost, and the cost factor was “not frozen.”  An agency’s cost-effectiveness judgment was not, by itself, preemptive, since the statute specified that the agency could only enact minimum standards.

Also unlike Geier, the government (speaking through the Solicitor General) did not support preemption.  Just as the government’s views “made a difference” in Geier, the agency’s the agency’s contrary position in Williamson also carried the day.  Thus, the Court concluded that, while a state tort suit “may restrict the manufacturer’s choice,” that restriction did not rise to the level of a preemptive “obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives” of the statute because the agency did not consider choice to be significant.

Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment based upon his prior position that “purposes and objectives preemption,” the form of implied preemption at issue in both Geier and Williamson, is subjective and should be abolished.

Recommended Citation: James Beck, Opinion analysis: Preemption trimmed in automobile product liability litigation, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 23, 2011, 1:53 PM),