Arizona Federal Court Rejects Auto Maker’s Preemption Argument; Same Issue Being Considered in South Carolina
Most drivers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what material goes into car windows; that’s the auto maker’s job. But in the event of an accident, those windows could mean the difference between life and death.
In an Arizona case decided in June 2011, Public Justice fought to make it easier for personal injury victims to hold car makers accountable for failing to use the safest type of window materials in the side windows of passenger vehicles. In Bernal v. Daewoo, an Arizona federal district court rejected a car maker’s argument that federal law “preempts” — i.e. totally bars — tort claims alleging that a car was defective because its side windows were made of tempered glass, which shatters on impact, rather than laminated glass, which holds together in the event of a crash, thereby preventing passenger ejections.
This ruling (click here to read it) signals a potentially major shift in the law of auto safety preemption. A host of courts have disagreed about whether window-glazing claims are preempted, creating a deep split of authority on this point.
But the tide may have turned when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Williamson v. Mazda this spring, a seminal ruling that rejected federal preemption in a case involving a different auto safety standard.
Public Justice argues that the decision in Williamson removes any doubt that window-glazing claims are not preempted by federal law — and the Bernal court agreed, signaling that the law in this area will increasingly favor auto-injury victims.
Public Justice is fighting the same issue in Priester v. Ford before the South Carolina Supreme Court. In a ruling issued before Williamson, the South Carolina Court had found window-glazing claims preempted by federal law. Public Justice petitioned to get that decision vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which then ordered the state high court to reconsider its decision in light of Williamson.
In Priester v. Ford, Public Justice recently filed its opening brief on behalf of Mary Priester, whose son was killed in 2002 after being ejected from the window of a 1997 Ford F-150. In the brief, Senior Attorney Leslie Brueckner and Kazan-Budd Attorney Matthew Wessler write that the federal regulation at issue — Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205 — is “nothing more than a minimum federal safety standard” that “permits manufacturers to improve the safety of their vehicles by installing additional protections.” Click here for the full brief.
Brueckner and Wessler argue that there is nothing about this regulation that could possibly be undermined by Ms. Priester’s lawsuit. They contend that her lawsuit will actually further federal objectives by creating an incentive for auto makers to make their cars safer.
On Priester, Brueckner and Wessler are working with trial counel Darrell Johnson, Jr., and James Richardson, Jr., both of South Carolina.
On Bernal, Julio Zapata of Phoenix is lead trial counsel.