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Supreme Court Rules: No Federal Preemption in Seat Belt Safety Cases

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Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that federal preemption does not protect automakers against civil suits over seatbelt safety.

The case ruled on involved a woman killed in a 1993 Mazda minivan when it was hit head-on by another vehicle. Thanh Williamson was sitting in the rear seat at the time of the accident, wearing a single lap belt, the only seat belt available. Though Williamson died, the other passengers in the car, all wearing shoulder-lap belts, survived the crash.

Mazda argued in the case that because federal law allowed automakers to choose whether they installed lap-only belts or lap-shoulder belts, the automakers should not be liable for injuries arising from the use of the lap-only belt.

In a victory for consumer protection, the Supreme Court disagreed with Mazda. The federal government allowing automakers to choose their restraints does not exempt the automakers from liability when they choose restraints that are less safe.

It’s heartening to see the Court side with accident victims in this case. Federal preemption should never be used as an excuse for installing equipment that won’t adequately protect people in crashes.