A motor vehicle accident in California in 2002 killed a rear-seat passenger in a minivan who was wearing a lap-only seat belt, the only type of safety belt provided by Mazda at that time. The victim's family brought a product liability lawsuit against the auto maker, alleging that a lap-and-shoulder belt would have saved her life.
The case has now slowly worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, following California appellate court and state Supreme Court rulings that the lawsuit was preempted by federal law.
The Justices are apparently split on whether the suit should be allowed to proceed. One of them is not participating in the case because of a conflict. If the Court splits 4-4, Mazda will win the case, but no legal precedent would be established.
The argument favoring preemption was stated by Chief Justice John Roberts, who noted that federal law at the time did not require auto manufacturers to install shoulder-and-lap belts because of their added costs. He stated that allowing cases to proceed in instances where car makers installed only lap belts - legal at the time - would be illogical and unjust and would substitute later judgment for that of regulators at the time.
A Justice Department lawyer argued that the suit should be allowed to go forward, noting that, while car makers were given the choice at the time to install lap-only belts, "they are not exempted from the consequences of that choice."
The plaintiff's attorney argued that not preempting such lawsuits would give manufacturers "an incentive to develop safer vehicles."
The Court is expected to announce its decision in June 2011.
Related Resource: online.wsj.com "US Supreme Court Appears Split on Seat Belt Lawsuit" November 3, 2010