requirements for passenger vehicle restraint systems in the United States are
established by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (“FMVSS”) 208, set by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (“NHTSA”) under authority of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (49 U.S.C. § 30101 et
seq.) The safety act requires combination lap
shoulder belts at the outboard (e.g., window) seats, but allows either lap
belts or lap shoulder belts at inboard (usually middle) seats.
Act has a preemption provision, providing that, on the one hand, states may
impose requirements relating to the same aspects of performance as those
promulgated under the Act only if they are identical, but that, on the other
hand, “[c]ompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not
exempt a person from liability at common law.” (49 U.S.C. § 30103(e).)
Until yesterday, the law in California was that product liability law suits claiming defects in restraint systems that conformed to those authorized by FMVSS 208 were not preempted. Ketchum v. Hyundai Motor Co. (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1672. But now, maybe not so much.
of Appeal held that Ketchum was inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s more
recent holding in Geier v. American Honda Motor Company, Inc. (2000) 529 U.S.
861 finding preemption of a product claim based on failure to install air bags,
where FMVSS 208 allowed installation of
air bags or other passive restraints.
Based on the reasoning in Geier , this
Court of Appeal held that the product defect claim was preempted.
course, technically there are conflicting Court of Appeal decisions on this
issue, and under Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court of Santa Clara
County (1962) 57 Cal. 2d 450,
every trial court in the state is entitled to follow either one of them. I’m guessing, however, that when or if issue
comes up again, whether concerning restraints or other performance standards, the
trial courts are going to take the safe route and follow Geier and Williamson.
BTB, congratulations to my friend Brian Takahashi at Bowman and Brooke in Los Angeles, the winner here.