In a move that won’t sit well with automakers, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that car manufacturers can be sued even if their vehicles meet all applicable safety standards. The case in question was brought against Mazda by the family of Thanh Williamson, who was killed when their 1993 Mazda MPV was involved in a head on collision with another vehicle. Williamson’s husband and daughter, who were in the front seats and were restrained by lap and shoulder belts, survived the crash. Williamson was in a rear seat, which provided a lap belt only, and died of severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding. The NHTSA did not require shoulder belts for all rear seat occupants in 1993 model year vehicles, and stated in the 1980s that the cost of requiring shoulder belts for rear seat passengers wasn’t justified by the benefits.
In their decision, the Supreme Court stated that automakers aren’t immunized by federal regulation, which set a minimum standard only. While Mazda was compliant with federal vehicle standards, the court argued that the “significant objective” of the NHTSA regulation was to increase vehicle safety, and not to give manufacturers a choice of providing a shoulder belt in the rear seat. As shoulder belts for all rear seat occupants weren’t mandated until the 2007 model year, the case opens the door for a potential flood of lawsuits.
As tragic as the individual case may be, no one forced the Williamson’s to buy a vehicle that lacked rear shoulder belts, and no one forced Mrs. Williamson to occupy that particular seat. The net result of this case will be more lawsuits against a variety of manufacturers, most of whom will settle the cases out of court to avoid publicity and the potential for a huge jury award. Grieving families (and their attorneys) will get paid, while the price of new cars will once again climb for the rest of us.
Source: Detroit News