1993 Mazda MPV

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]