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Supreme Court allows product safety lawsuit over seat belts

The United States Supreme Court has decided that federal regulations allow product safety lawsuits over seat belts. A recent update from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association addressed the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that federal regulations setting vehicle safety standards do not bar lawsuits seeking damages from automakers for installing lap-only belts. The unanimous ruling regarding a California product liability lawsuit against automaker Mazda Motor Corp. after a 2002 fatal auto collision involving a 1993 Mazda minivan. The wrongful death lawsuit involved the death of a passenger sitting in a rear seat and wearing a lap-only seat belt. The wrongful death lawsuit claimed that the minivan was defectively designed because it was lacking a lap and shoulder seat belt for the rear seat.

In response, the auto maker replied that it complied with safety regulations in effect at the time. A state appellate court ruled that the product liability lawsuit could not proceed, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Justice Breyer, writing for the Court, stated that the federal safety regulation did not pre-empt state tort lawsuits claiming that the auto manufacturers should have installed lap and shoulder belts, instead of lap-only belts, on rear inner seats.

Analyses based on the Fatality Analysis Reporting System from 1988 through 1997 shows that lap/shoulder belts significantly enhance passenger protection. In all car crashes, lap/shoulder belts are 15 percent more effective than lap belts alone. In frontal crashes, lap/shoulder belts are 25 percent more effective than lap belts alone! Lap/shoulder belts reduce the risk of both head and abdominal injuries in potentially fatal frontal crashes relative to lap belts only.

You can read more about the car crash safety analysis at NHTSA.gov.