By on November 2, 2010

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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35 Comments on “Mazda Lawsuit Brings Shoulder Belt Adoption Debate To Supreme Court...”

  • avatar

    Pharmaceuticals carry a 50% (or whatever the amount is) price premium just for insurance for such lawsuits.
    Are we willing to pay a 100% addition on the car price just to be able to sue?
    My car doesn’t have Vehicle Stability control and it wasn’t required back then. Am I able to sue the manufacturer anyway when I’m in an accident?
    I think it is bad that manufacturers don’t offer common safety items as standard item even when it is not legally required. Like until some years ago many cars didn’t have ABS or curtain airbags as standard option but charged extra. but this is because many people aren’t willing to pay for such things.
    I think the federal government should get sued for not requiring full seat belts before 2007. Are you kidding, 2007, really??

    • 0 avatar

      Pharmaceuticals carry a 50% (or whatever the amount is) price premium just for insurance for such lawsuits.
      +1. It’s probably higher. A good part of my income probably comes from testing overkill.
      I guess I should thank the FDA and Trial Lawyers.

  • avatar

    No shoulder belt? I have to assume the woman who was killed was a rear seat passenger. I can’t imagine any vehicle in 1993 not having shoulder belts for the front seats.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, she was in the rear.  From the Bloomberg article:

      Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan, was sued by the family of Thanh Williamson, 32, who died in 2002 in Utah as she was riding in a rear aisle seat in the second row of a 1993 MPV minivan.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    So, when can my aunt’s dead husband’s estate be re-opened, so he can sue over the loss of his first wife, who died in a car accident in the mid 1960’s? 

    After all, the car manufacturers didn’t put in air bags, ABS, radial tires, disc brakes, crush zones, collapsible steering columns, OR shoulder belts in her car. 

    So why can’t my aunt sue over her dead husband’s dead wife and win?  Just think, she’d have enough money to retire on and some lawyers would be rich. 

    (flipside to same scenario)

    “Waddayamean the 2012 Neo-Pontiac Aztek crossover built in China costs $2,999,999.99, plus 50% VAT, and 75% lawsuit-provisional fees, plus state tax and license fees?!” 

    “Sir, that is because nobody else in their right minds is selling any new vehicles right now anyway; and to be honest, if there is a lawsuit, the Neo-Pontiac Aztek company will simply fold up and blow away never to be seen again – along with parts supplies – so just between you and I, I wouldn’t sue if you do have an accident.  Besides, the Neo-Studebaker Wagonaire at the neighboring dealership 100 miles away, costs $3,999,999.99 plus plus plus plus plus…. and they’re our only “competition” you see?”

  • avatar

    Did anyone stop the Williams family from upgrading the seatbelts in their car? Or force them to buy a car without shoulder belts for the rear seat passengers?

  • avatar

    So I guess the pockets of the owner/operator of the Jeep Wrangler and/or his/her insurance carrier aren’t deep enough? The accident wasn’t caused by the seat belts, it was caused by some other vehicle plowing into the victim’s. I would say this would be tossed, but considering some of the SCOTUS’ rather legislative rulings as of late, nothing is beyond belief.

  • avatar

    Sometimes your acronyms can be “used” to have some fun. See what happens when I add an R to SCOTUS, and voilà we get… try it at home kids.
    Think about it.

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, the majority of our highest court are Corporately owned.  We cannot expect any rulings in favor of real people, only corporations, who are now considered people, will win cases heard by our Supreme? Court

  • avatar

    No way should this be allowed, where would it end?  My ’29 Model A has no seat belts, and the fuel tank is the dash.  Is that proof of Ford negligence?

    • 0 avatar
      TwoTone Loser

      You have here the ultimate reason why the grandfather clause exists. The past is not forgiving, for reasons that are obvious to anybody with a practical mind.

  • avatar

    According to the eminently reliable, Volvo introduced 3-point belts on the 122 model in 1959, with rear 3-points again from Volvo in 1972. (I remember my family’s 1972 145 wagon and the rear outer 3-point belts supported by a vertical metal post in the far rear side windows.)
    Would this mean anyone injured in those timeframes where the injury is attributable to the lack of 3-point belts could sue? Oh, that’s right. The American public is not expected to have any brains. At least they’re not required to, which is probably a good thing for the vast majority.

  • avatar

    MIAMI, Jan. 8 2009 (UPI) — An airline that flew between Florida and the Bahamas has sued the manufacturer of a 58-year-old seaplane that crashed in 2005.
    In legal papers, Chalk’s Ocean Airways claims the Grumman Turbo Mallard was “not adequately designed for its intended purpose,” the Miami Herald reports.

  • avatar

    Funny thing that insurance companies never reduced premiums after they got primary seat belt laws enacted “to save the children” in all 50 states.

  • avatar

    When did the focus of driving safety move from “let’s drive safe and learn to avoid accidents” to “let’s make cars have so many safety systems that you can hit anything at any speed and walk away so we can all drive like imbeciles”?
    The obsession with safety must stop before the compact class weighs in at 5000lbs. Driving is risky. Either cowboy up and deal with it or don’t get in a car.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Traffic fatalities per mile traveled have dropped by almost a factor of six since 1950 thanks primarily to improved vehicles, drunk driving laws and seatbelt laws.
      Would you really rather that last year’s US traffic body count were over 200,000 people instead of the 37,313 it actually was? Aren’t nearly fourty thousand deaths on our roads last year more than enough? That is, after all, still over 10x the number of people who died in the infamous 9/11 attacks.

    • 0 avatar

      @ John Horner

      Traffic fatalities per mile traveled have dropped by almost a factor of six since 1950 thanks primarily to improved vehicles, drunk driving laws and seatbelt laws.

      I think there’s solid evidence from other nations that focusing on driver behavior could have reduced fatalities even more.

      Would you really rather that last year’s US traffic body count were over 200,000 people instead of the 37,313 it actually was?

      I don’t think Izzafuto was suggesting removing seat belts and airbags.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I see lots of drivers on my everyday commute that we would be better off without.
      But seriously…  even if the death toll on the roads was 500,000 people a year I’d still be commuting to work… not hiding under my desk. There is a point where diminishing returns comes into play with safety equipment just like with anything else. We are quickly approaching that point if we are not already past it. Driving will always be a risk, just like anything in life. By trying to completely eliminate that risk we are driving up the cost of cars immensely, not to mention decreasing the long term reliability due to electronic complexity, decreasing fuel efficiency, driving up monthly insurance costs, etc. I also believe safety should be a choice, not a mandate. If I can take the risk and choose to buy and drive a motorcycle, why must every car be more than 3000lbs and come with 15 air bags and 30 electronic nannies?

    • 0 avatar

      The obsession with safety must stop before the compact class weighs in at 5000lbs.

      Last time I checked, the Smart ForTwos have at least six airbags, a ton of sensors and other electronics for ABS, TC, stability control, active brake assist, etc etc.

      They also have a remarkably stiff chassis structure and pretty effectively engineered crumple zones.

      Despite all this, they come in at a whopping 1800lbs – less than a 1967 VW Beetle, which didn’t have much more space, and had zero airbags, zero sensors, no ABS, no TC, no stability control, and pretty damn near zero chassis stiffness or body integrity.

      So, tell me again how safety features are making cars heavier? Or maybe – just maybe – it’s something else.

  • avatar
    Brian P

    The USA desperately needs its product-liability laws improved.
    “Does the gizmo when it was originally built comply with applicable codes and standards that were in effect at the date of its original manufacture?”
    YES – Go pound sand. Not the manufacturer’s problem.
    NO – okay, then maybe there is a case to be made.

  • avatar

    Ooh! Ooh! I Hope this goes through! My grandmother’s cousin got scalped by the mirror on his Model A convertible! I could join a suit and be soooo rich!!!!!
    Remember when people actually worked for their money….

  • avatar

    No. no. NO.  I am sorry for the loss of a human life, but Mazda didn’t do anything wrong.  This would open way too many cans of worms in not just the automotive industry, but basically anything made by anybody that killed somebody.  Mazda complied with regulations and their product passed all mandated testing.  They should not be liable.

  • avatar

    IMHO, they should be allowed to sue.  A federal regulation for requiring rear seat belts doesn’t mean that you can’t sue.  But, at the same time, I think you have to prove that there was a defect in the design.  You just can’t sue because it didn’t have rear shoulder belts.
    On the Toyota UA part of the article, I am not sure how this applies.  The Toyota problem is over supposed defects that either are (or are not) in the cars.  This isn’t a complying with a federal safety statute problem unless sometime in the future throttle cutoff while braking becomes a federal safety statute.

    Even then, proving that there is was a defect will prove to be difficult.

  • avatar

    Some clarifications need to be made.  First of all the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it will hear this case or not.  The Plaintiffs have filed what is known as a writ of certiorari.  All this means is that they are asking the US Supreme Court to hear the case.  Here is the Supreme Court’s docket on this case:

      Thousands of cases are sumbitted every year to the Supreme Court and of those thousands of cases the Supreme Court may decided to hear a couple dozen at most.  Those cases where cert are granted usually invove some compelling constitutional issue.  There are certain types of cases which the Supreme Court MUST decide but this is not one of them.  (Think Bush v. Gore as an example).  I certainly can’t blame anyone for thinking that this case was set to be decided by the Supreme Court because the author of Bloomberg article doesn’t seem to understand this important detail.   

  • avatar
    John Horner

    This is an interesting case for sure. The industry takes the position that as long as they didn’t break any federal laws, they have no civil liability for safety related shortcomings of their products. This seems to be a suspicious argument. The idea that as long as the federal government didn’t stop a person (remember, companies are “people” now according to the Supreme Court) from doing something, said thing is protected from all civil liability makes no sense.

    Mazda’s position is: “Yes, we knew that our competitors put in shoulder belts for seating positions we elected to leave them out of. Yes, we knew that the lack of shoulder belts meant that over the life of our vehicles, more customers would be injured and/or killed due to the lack of said belts than they would have had we so equipped our vehicles. Yes, we made this decision to save some money. No, you can’t sue us … because the federal government didn’t stop us.;

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, but also consider the flip-side of that argument….
      The customer’s position is: “Yes, we knew that many competitors’ vehicles offered shoulder belts in the rear seats, unlike the Mazda. We knew that the lack of shoulder belts would greatly increase our risk of injury/death in the event of an accident compared to a vehicle with them. We ourselves made the decision to buy this vehicle over other options by our own free will; and yes, we can sue, because nobody told us not to buy it.”
      I see your point, but when does personal responsibility for one’s own decisions come into play? Nobody made them choose the MPV over another product, and I doubt that anybody at Mazda coerced them into believing lap belts were as safe as three-point shoulder belts….

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    WTF?  So I should buy that early 1960s Pontiac I saw on eBay last night?  No seatbelts, not required by law, maybe my survivors will get rich!  Hallelujah!

  • avatar

    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?

    • 0 avatar

      Does this really need to be explained?

      Lap belts are better than no belts.
      Three point belts are better than lap belts.

      The fact that something has been superceded doesn’t mean it was never an improvement. Lap belts haven’t become death traps; they work just as well as they did originally. They’re nowhere near as good as three point belts, but they’re still a hell of a lot batter than rattling around in a steel, crome, and vinyl can until you’re toseed through a window.

      It’s nice to see that the resident luddites are out in force tonight, blaming heavy cars on safety and claiming that if you drive well nobody can ever run a stop sign and t-bone you.

      Here’s a little PSA, guys – airbags weigh about a pound. I’ve got a box of ’em out in the shop. And those horrible sensors – believe it or not! – weigh substantially -less- than a pound!

      Even assuming significant packaging overhead, those 16 airbags aren’t going to add much more than 50lbs to your car.

      And it’s also unlikely that chassis strength and crumple design has contributed significantly as engineering advances have allowed far better use of materials.

      You know what -does- add a lot of weight, though? Size! Bigness! Capaciousness! Suddenly it’s 1960, gentlemen; big is in – and I’ll tell you what: 16 airbags in an Avalon weigh the same as 16 airbags in a Yaris.

      That, and the real kicker: What do enthusiasts on TTAC demand? Plush carpet! Lots of sound deadening! Fantastic seats with heaters and coolers and nine electric motors! Huge stereos with big amps and heavy large-magneted subs! Cushy soft dashboards made of rubber and wrapped with leather! Solid handles, solid doors, 19″ rims with wide tires, huge brakes!

      But no – I’m sure it’s the airbags that are making the difference. Carry on.

    • 0 avatar

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

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    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.”

    • 0 avatar

      Is there a law that specifically states that Whole Foods can’t sell arsenic in the sugar isle?
      That reminds me of my local walmart – before they reorganized it, they had an aisle with a big sign saying:

    • 0 avatar

      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.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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