Mazda Lawsuit Brings Shoulder Belt Adoption Debate To Supreme Court

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
mazda lawsuit brings shoulder belt adoption debate to supreme court

A lawsuit against Mazda is moving to the United States Supreme Court, reports Bloomberg, challenging whether automakers should have been required to install shoulder belts in all of its seats prior to current regulations requiring the improved belting systems took effect in 2007. The case centers on a 2002 accident in which Than Williams was killed when a Jeep Wrangler hit her family’s 1993 Mazda MPV. The Williams MPV had only lap belts because shoulder belts weren’t required by federal law until 2007. A California court has already barred the lawsuit from coming forward, arguing that federal regulations supersede any local rulings, and that then-legal seatbelts should protect manufacturers from personal injury liability. However a recent case casts some doubt on the precedents in the Mazda case…

The Supreme Court last year, ruling on preemption in a different context, said consumers can sue drugmakers for failing to provide adequate safety warnings. The 6-3 ruling said pharmaceutical companies aren’t shielded from suit by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a treatment and its packaging information.

In other words, if drug manufacturers can be liable for injury even if packaging complied with federal law, accident victims should be able to sue automoakers for injuries sustained in legally-compliant automobiles. But, if the SCOTUS rules with the Williams family, the auto industry worries that it could

face crushing liability in 50 states from 50 different systems

We’ll be sure to keep an eye on this case, as it clearly bears on a number of important safety issues in the industry right now, specifically the legal liability incurred by Toyota during its unintended acceleration scandal.

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  • MadHungarian MadHungarian on Nov 02, 2010

    In the 1960's, the mantra was "Seat belts save lives" and it was backed up by claims of big percentage reductions in fatalities and injuries if we just would wear our seatbelts, which at the time were lap belts. How did lap belts suddenly become deathtraps? I have noticed, watching many slo-mo crash test videos, that the shoulder belt doesn't restrain upper body movement anywhere as much as I would have thought. Which as I think about it might make sense, because if you really could keep the upper torso glued to the seatback, more of the crash forces would be concentrated on the head and neck. So, can someone explain?

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    • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Nov 03, 2010

      +1 to both MadHungarian and PeriSoft (I guess that would have to be +2 so you both get a point)

  • Blue adidas Blue adidas on Nov 03, 2010

    On one hand, it's not realistic to expect that a ten year old vehicle perform as well in crashes as a new vehicle. But on the other hand, in the 90s, this vehicle was sold as a family hauler and not as a utility truck. Safety regulations aren't ever going to be written until there is the precedent for them, and it took a few years for regulations to catch up to this (then unconventional) style of vehicle. I hope that we never live in a society that lives entirely within a framework of regulations and laws. Is there a law that specifically states that Whole Foods can't sell arsenic in the sugar isle? Companies need to use reasonable common sense when conducting their business and, as new categories of vehicles are being created, manufacturers know exactly what the purpose is going to be. If insufficient safety equipment was included in this Mazda, it was likely because they wanted to safe a few bucks and not because they build the car in the "dark ages" and really didn't know the benefits of a three-point seat belt. So I guess my point is, that I'm not in favor of regulations ruling our lives. But maybe there should be a regulation stating "Even if there's no regulation, use common sense."

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    • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Nov 03, 2010

      And I thought my local Wal-bourgh was bad having the foods section next to the automotive section. I kid you not soda in one aisle and the next aisle over is windshield washer fluid. EDIT: “Even if there’s no regulation, use common sense.” Common sense isn't very common anymore. Case in point the lady who sued McDonald's, and won I believe, because she accidentally dumped hot coffee in her lap after she picked it up from McDonald's. Now we all have to read warnings on coffee that say, "Caution: Contents may be hot." Well duh. It's coffee. My minor rant is over.

  • Wmba Wmba on Nov 03, 2010

    This has happened before in light aviation. "Cessna, which once produced about 6,500 aircraft per year stopped building, totally stopped building small piston aircraft. By 1994 about 120,000 Cessnas were still in operation and their average age was 27 years. Since 1986, that company had spent over $20 million a year -- $160 million over the 8 years from 1986 to 1994 -- defending lawsuits, involving aircraft as old as 47 years. Beech Aircraft spent over $100 million in legal fees over four years to defend itself from 203 product liability lawsuits. This, despite the fact that in none of those cases did the National Transportation Safety Board find Beeches' Aircraft to be defective. These added costs have forced many manufacturers to curtail production and have forced many potential aircraft purchasers completely out of the market. Piper Aircraft Corp., another major player in the industry, tumbled into bankruptcy for the same reasons. Other U.S. light-plane manufacturers struggled through economic woes. By 1994 that industry was manufacturing only a fraction of the airplanes it was building just 15 years earlier. The whole U.S. general aviation industry sold only 444 planes in 1994. Piper made 108 of them. General aviation aircraft sales by U.S. manufacturers dropped from 17,000 aircraft built in 1979 to 954 such aircraft in 1993." So, go ahead and sue for that crumpled '68 Ford. Frivolous doesn't begin to describe the actions of BS lawyers and people who see a great way to retire on somebody else's dime, when the mistake was their own in an out of date vehicle. The World is indeed upside down.

  • Stevelovescars Stevelovescars on Nov 03, 2010

    Considering that the courts allowed asbestos lawsuits to bankrupt companies that never even made the products to which the victims were exposed, I have a feeling that this issue may continue. In fact, in some cases, federal law had mandated the used of asbestos products (in military applications and government buildings) for which the manufacturers were later sued and in many cases, bankrupted as a result. I was once sued over an accident in which I was sandwiched in the middle of a chain collision while stopped on the freeway in heavy traffic. The truck that started the accident was a "roach coach" catering truck with an unlicensed driver and no insurance. I was next in line with good insurance AND was in a rental car for work, so my employer and the rental company were also sued. There was never any question that I was in no way at fault. Seeing that I had the damage waiver as a part of the corporate rental agreement, I was quickly let off the financial hook. I later learned that the rental company paid out $20k to the guy who was in front of me in the accident (and who had no documented injuries or medical expenses). It was simply less expensive than continuing to fight the suit. I got squat other than a bad back. The tort system is simply a form of legal extortion. If you start with that outlook and simply ignor rational explanations and logic, it makes life much easier.