Williamson v. Mazda: Impact on FMVSS Preemption

05.05.11 | Permalink

On February 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 562 U.S. ___ (2011).

At issue in Williamson was whether FMVSS 208, which provides manufacturers with a choice of installing lap and shoulder belts or only lap belts in rear inner seats, preempted a state lawsuit alleging that a Mazda mini van was defective for not having lap and shoulder belts. 

The Court used the analysis it created in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000), in which it held that another portion of FMVSS 208 providing manufacturers with a choice of whether utilize passive restraint systems other than airbags pre-empted any state tort suit based upon the manufacturer’s decision not to use air bags. However, the Court came to the opposite conclusion with regard to the FMVSS provision at issue in Williamson.

The Court identified the subsidiary questions it created in Geier to address the preemption question: (1) whether the statute’s express pre-emption provision pre-empts the state tort suit; (2) whether the statute’s saving clause forecloses operation of ordinary pre-emption principles (i.e. federal statutes pre-empt state laws that actually conflict with the federal law); and (3) whether the state tort action, in fact, conflicts with the federal regulation. Since Williamson and Geier involve FMVSS 208, the answers to the first two questions are the same. Therefore, the only remaining issue was whether Williamson’s lawsuit stood as an “obstacle to a significant regulatory objective.” 

Test for Determining If a Lawsuit Is an “Obstacle to a Significant Regulatory Objective” of an FMVSS Regulation Which Provides Design Alternatives

According to the Court, determining whether a suit is an obstacle to the accomplishment of a significant federal objective requires looking at not only the regulation itself, but the regulatory objectives and the agency’s current position on preemption. 

In Geier, the Court found it was clear that the DOT intended to make “manufacturer choice” an important means for achieving its objectives regarding passive restraint systems. Further, the attorney general filed an amicus brief advising that a tort suit insisting upon the use of air bags as opposed to the other permissible passive restraint systems would create an obstacle to manufacturer choice, which was an important means for achieving the DOT’s objectives.

By contrast, in Williamson, the Court found that manufacturers’ choice of seatbelt designs for use with inner rear seats was not a significant objective of FMVSS 208. The regulatory history showed that the DOT knew that lap and shoulder belts would increase safety, but was concerned about the additional costs. The Court explained that while an agency could base a preemption decision on cost effectiveness, no such intent was evidenced in the rulemaking record of the FMVSS 208 provision at issue. A cost effectiveness decision alone does not eliminate the possibility that the agency sought only to set forth a minimum standard which could be supplemented through state tort law. Further, the Attorney General, as amicus, stated that the DOT’s position was that the regulation did not preempt Williamson’s suit. The Court concluded that even though the suit may restrict the manufacturers’ choice, it was not an obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives of federal law and FMVSS 208 did not preempt the lawsuit.

 What Do Geier And Williamson Mean To Manufacturers?

The test created in Geier and applied in Williamson creates significant uncertainty regarding preemption defenses when a FMVSS regulation provides design choices. Manufacturers now must engage in a significant review of the regulatory history to determine whether preserving manufacturer’s choice was a significant objective of the regulation, or if the regulation merely prescribes a minimum standard.  Plus, given the deference that the Court gives to the agency’s position on preemption, manufacturers will need to not only ascertain the DOT’s position at the time the regulation was enacted, but engage in speculation regarding what its future position will be. The extra-regulatory analysis will make it much more difficult to raise and maintain a preemption defense.

For more information, see the U.S. Supreme Court's website.

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