The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled this week that federal law did not pre-empt failure to warn claims brought against Ford Motor Company. Cook v. Ford Motor Co., No. 49A02-0802-CV-130, 2009 WL 2997393 (Ind. Ct. App. Sept. 21, 2009). Ford claimed that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act) pre-empted the plaintiffs' state law claim that Ford failed to warn of the dangers posed by the front airbag to unrestrained children in the front seat. The Safety Act, the court of appeals explained, "was enacted to 'reduce traffic accidents and death and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents.'" Id. at *5, citing 49 U.S.C. § 30101. The Safety Act contains both a pre-emption clause and a common law savings clause. See id. The court held that reading the two clauses together, the common law tort actions were not expressly pre-empted. Id.
The court also examined whether the state law tort claims were actually pre-empted; in other words, whether the state standards actually conflicted with federal objectives. Id. Specifically, Ford had asserted on summary judgment that one of the standards set forth under the Safety Act specifies the warnings to be used with respect to airbags and airbag cutoff devices. See id. However, the court found that the standard at issue, 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S126.96.36.199, only generally describes the content to be included in the vehicle's owner's manual. Id. at *8. The plaintiffs' claim that the airbag warning should have been worded differently, the court ruled, does not conflict with that standard under the Safety Act. Id. Instead, the court found S188.8.131.52 to be a floor, but not a ceiling, for warnings about airbags and cutoff devices to be included in an owner's manual. Id. at 9. The court explained that the implementing agency's standard strongly implies, if not stating outright, that the standard is only a floor because it allows manufacturers "the flexibility to tailor the warning language to their vehicles." Id.
Because it was not impossible for Ford to comply with both the federal standard and the state law duty alleged by the plaintiffs, the state law failure to warn claim was not pre-empted. Id. As the court of appeals also found questions of law as to whether Ford breached its duty to adequately warn and whether such a breach proximately caused the fatality at issue, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's finding of summary judgment for Ford, and remanded the case.