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The United States Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that automakers can be sued over product-liability complaints, regardless of whether or not the vehicles in question meet federal motor vehicle safety standards in place at the time of manufacture. The decision has been handed down in the case of Williamson vs. Mazda Motor of America, in which the family of a woman who perished in a crash involving a 1993 MPV (pictured) sued the automaker, arguing that she would have survived had there been a three-point belt available for her seating position.

The 2002 accident that claimed the life of Thanh Williamson was a head-on crash with another vehicle, and the other occupants of Williamson's vehicle with three-point belts survived. Ms. Williamson's family brought suit in California, contending that Mazda should have provided lap-and-shoulder belts, though it wasn't required by law at the time the vehicle was built and sold. Despite Mazda's compliance with vehicle safety standards, the ruling makes automakers more prone to lawsuits over issues deemed negligent by consumers.

Wednesday's ruling opens the door for a reinterpretation of the Geier vs. American Honda Motor Company decision in 2000 that many lower courts read as a prohibition of state-level liability lawsuits pertaining to products ranging from electronics to vehicles. The Federal regulations in place for these products have been seen as precluding any contradictory state statutes, but with this latest decision, the landscape may change significantly, and not just for automobiles.

Reaction to this decision from the stock market was not positive, with Ford and other car companies down one or two percent. Mazda says the ruling is disappointing, but doesn't assign liability, and the company will defend itself.

[Source: The Wall Street Journal | Photo: Wikimedia – IFCAR CC 2.0]

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      So play by the rules and still get found guilty? Figures.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Actually, it means "play by the rules, but you still can get sued".

        In essence, being in compliance with the law/regulation does not provide tort protection.
        • 4 Years Ago
        "So play by the rules and still get found guilty? Figures."

        Not really. It's like any tort suit where the question is whether or not the harm was reasonably foreseeable, and whether or not it was common practice at the time for manufacturers to install 3 point seat belts.

        It's the same idea, for instance, concerning whether or not it's negligent to "not" use laminated glass apartment showers. See Trimarco v. Klein.

        Much less, the federal safety standards should go a long way in establishing what was considered and accepted as safe at the time. There's nothing saying these people will actually win their lawsuit.
        • 4 Years Ago

        well if we all go by your opinion then I'm going to buy all cars from the 80's and early 90's and sue when I get in a crash and the airbag that was never installed doesn't deploy.....

        "it wasn't required by law at the time the vehicle was built and sold. "

        sorry she lost her life over the crash but the suit isn't needed in this case. but bad economy & job loss = lawsuits from people who have nothing better to do to make money legit
      • 4 Years Ago
      Negligence would be Mazda providing faulty equipment. In this case, the equipment conformed with the regulations set in place at the time. Under this logic, I can crash a Dodge Dart and sue for it not having the same safety equipment as today. Gimme a break.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sometimes I am embarassed to say I am an American.

      This country is quickly going downhill and is already the laughing stock for the rest of the civilized world. Our national debt, our legal system, our politics, and just the way that this country is run and the mentality of its citizens. Do you think any of this crap would happen in Germany, Italy, or the UK? Absolutely not.

      The system is broken in many ways, and it needs to be fixed or we will all suffer down the road.


        • 4 Years Ago
        Sure it does. We just don't hear about it because we're self-centered. ;)

        In fact, when reading about the McDs lawsuit to answer the post above, I read McDs was sued for the same thing in the UK. McDs won there too.

        One side of this country, a vocal minority, wants to tear us down and make us uncompetitive with other first-world countries (those of Europe and Japan) to race us towards the bottom (low wages, abuse workers, let people die due to lack of healthcare) while the grown ups want to tackle our real problems. Unfortunately, our corporatist system is focused on distracting us (wedge issues) so that the wealth of the country can be redistributed UP to the top 1%. Or top 0.1%. For some reason the joe-blows of the country seem to think this is best thing since sliced bread.

      • 4 Years Ago
      This is stupid. First the Supreme Court sells the government to Corporations and now this garbage.
      • 4 Years Ago
      First of all I think the only person the family should be able to sue is whoever caused the accident.

      Having said that...IF somebody else should be liable, shouldn't it be the government? Mazda met safety standards set by the government. If those standards aren't good enough, isn't it the government's fault?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Was about to comment the same thing. If the car didn't have the seatbelts because the federal requirement didn't mandate them, then the federal government should be liable and open to law suits. Maybe the government, and not Ford, should see its stock dropping like a stone over the past 2 days. Frigging frig %$#@@%$!$$@.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wonder if my family can sue if I drive recklessly in a 58 VW Beetle and get killed because the car lacked some essential safety equipment.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Quoting @ MyThreeRocks, "Maybe 4 of those guys, sure. But it was unanimous" ---- I think you maybe mean 5 of those guys and girls, right???
      • 4 Years Ago
      I hate to be the voice of reason, because I agree with the sentiment that this is ridiculous, but if I'm reading this correctly, and I may not be, this ruling says that if a safety product was available at the time (but not mandatory) and that the manufacturer didn't use it for whatever reason, they can be held liable for accidents.

      Like, for example, if you crash your 1992 Dodge Viper and die because it doesn't have an airbags or ABS, then Dodge can be found liable. However, if you crash your 1972 Dodge Challenger and complain that it didn't have airbags/ABS the suit would be thrown out because those didn't even exist at the time.

      Still, it's a strange ruling and I'm getting the feeling that this has been misinterpreted by automotive journalists. I think I need to have a sit down and give it a serious looking over if I'm going to comment. Some rulings can't be summed up in soundbites and I think this is one of them.

      Also, it can't mean what this article says because then every industry on Earth would be liable for safety defects even if they pass the regulations of the era. So no one would want to sell anything in America ever again.
      • 4 Years Ago
      So if the Williamsons get any money out of this, are they going to donate it to a charity in their mother's name? Ya right. Pretty sad world we live in but at least we have our cars!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Yes , stupid. Standards then mean nothing and the designers don't know what to design for !
      • 4 Years Ago
      So car companies that for years only had driver side airbags because that is what was required, will be in the same boat. Anyone who was injured or died in the passenger seat obviously did so in vain since the car COULD have been equipped with more airbags and wasn't. Ditto side curtain, pretentioners, anti-lock brakes and so on. What about Ford's new belt bags? If they aren't on every vehicle in every seat, Ford must be liable if someone gets injured without them. Ridiculous.

      If safety regulations are so easily dismissed as having no point, maybe they really should just get rid of them. Let car companies police themselves and offer whatever they want. Hell, make every safety feature OPTIONAL and make the fully optioned cars have EVERY safety feature available for normal option prices so all the liability rests on the driver. If they don't pay for it they can't complain about not having it. Why get the government involved? With every bit of safety equipment optional yet available on every car the only person responsible is the person buying the car. It would lower the cost and weight of base models and people could play roulette with their lives to buy a cheaper car. Why, for example, should anyone pay for side curtain airbags if they are single and never carry passengers? Because the government says so? Bah!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Just another example of why doing business in the US sucks.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Dude, what are you talking about???

        The UAW is a major draw for companies to build plants here and continue to produce in plants that already have a UAW presence.

        ....... or something like that.
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