Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc.
Amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in successful case involving federal preemption of claims that a minivan was defective because its aisle seat lacked a lap/shoulder harness.
In this case, we filed an amicus brief in a case in which a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that injured crash victims can sue car manufacturers for failing to install a safer seatbelt.
In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc. the Supreme Court held that a federal regulation that gave car makers the option of installing either lap belts or lap-belt/shoulder harnesses in rear-inner seats does not preempt state-law claims. We filed an amicus brief in this case arguing that the plaintiffs should be permitted to have their day in court, and the Supreme Court agreed.
As we urged, the high court’s ruling in Williamson limits the reach of an often-misapplied earlier decision, Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., which has regularly been misused by a host of courts to find federal preemption in areas that Congress never intended.
At issue was the meaning of Geier, a Supreme Court case handled by Public Justice in the late 1990’s. The regulation at play in Geier gave car makers the option of installing either an airbag or some other form of passive restraint in the front seats of cars. Although the Supreme Court found federal preemption based on the unique history of the airbag regulation, manufacturers were then able to convince many lower courts that Geier applied whenever an automobile safety feature was governed by a regulatory option. This misreading also spread outside the auto safety context, leading to preemption rulings in areas ranging from consumer products to mobile homes to cell phones.
In our Williamson brief, we emphasized how lower courts had badly misapplied Geier and urged the high court to resolve the massive confusion it had caused. Thankfully, the Supreme Court did just that.
In reaching this result, and by correcting the misreading of Geier, the Supreme Court has deprived car manufacturers of one of their most readily used defenses to avoid liability. At the same time, the Court has handed car accident victims like the Williamsons a chance to hold wrongdoers accountable and has shown the important role that the tort system plays in promoting public safety.