The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on whether or not current federal regulations protect automakers from being sued under state product liability laws. According to The Wall Street Journal, justices will examine a California lawsuit that claims that Mazda should be held responsible for the death of a passenger in a 1993 MPV minivan. The passenger was riding in the middle seat, wearing a lap belt, when an accident occurred. The belt caused serious internal injuries that eventually led to death. The plaintiff's argument is that by not installing three-point seatbelts in the center row of the vehicle, Mazda failed to do everything in its power to protect the occupants of the vehicle.

It's important to note that three-point seatbelts didn't become a legal requirement in all seating positions until 2007. Before that time, regulations established in 1989 said that three-point belts were only required in outboard seats, so Mazda built the MPV to conform to the laws in place when the vehicle was built and sold.

The lawsuit was originally rejected after Mazda pointed to a 2000 Supreme Court case in which Honda was unsuccessfully sued after injuries occurred in a 1987 Honda Accord. In that case, the plaintiff said that Honda was responsible because it did not install airbags in the vehicle.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in the 2010-2011 term starting in October.

[Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg | Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty]