Product Liability

Wrongful-death suit involving Mazda seatbelt may proceed, Supreme Court rules

In a unanimous decision that surprised many across the political spectrum, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a wrongful-death lawsuit the green light to proceed against Mazda Motor Corp. The decision by the Supreme Court, which became conservative and corporate-friendly by a majority in 2006, offers some hope that the little guy suing a big corporation in America still has some chance for justice.

The lawsuit was filed by the parents of a girl named Thanh Williamson, who was killed when the lap belt she wore in the backseat of a 1993 Mazda minivan failed to secure her during a head-on collision with another vehicle in 2002. Her parents, who were seated in the front wearing safety belts that secured their shoulders and their laps, survived the crash. Had Mazda installed lap and shoulder belts in the backseat as they did in the front, their daughter would still be alive today, the plaintiffs argued.

In allowing the case to proceed, the Supreme Court justices rejected Mazda’s argument that its seat belts met federal safety standards and therefore the company should not be held liable for their defective design under state laws. In other cases involving prescription drugs and medical devices, the Supreme Court has allowed federal regulations to preempt personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s opinion states that the relevant federal safety regulations don’t bar lawsuits over lap-only seat belts and that there was no proof the government ever wanted to preempt these kinds of lawsuits.

Justice Clarence Thomas said in his concurrence that the text of the relevant federal law specifically allowed suits like the one brought against Mazda by the Williamson family. And, while regulations have changed since that fateful crash (vehicles must now be made with lap and shoulder belts in the backseat as well as the front) about one million vehicles on the road today still have lap-only belts that may fail to keep passengers safe in the event of a strong impact.