In a surprising opinion from which no justice dissented, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that Mazda may be liable for a death allegedly caused by the absence of a lap and shoulder belt in the rear middle seat of a 1993 minivan.
Giving effect to a statutory savings clause recognizing that lawsuits play a meaningful role in the development of safe products, the Court opened the door to lawsuits when manufacturers fail to use the most effective safety equipment. The Court has generally sided with big business in recent years, and a prior decision had been widely read as suggesting that federal motor vehicle safety regulations preempt or block lawsuits based on alleged defects in the design of safety features that are also the subject of federal regulations. In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., however, the Court said the safety regulation in question established only a minimum standard, not the maximum standard.
The long-term effect the Court’s decision will have on products liability lawsuits is uncertain as outcomes may turn on the specific language and intent of the applicable federal regulations.