The family of a woman killed in an auto accident while riding in a van that provided a lap-only seatbelt where she was seated learned on May 24, 2010, that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear whether federal vehicle safety standards preempt state common-law claims that the manufacturer should have installed a lap/shoulder belt or provided a warning of the alleged dangers posed by a lap-only seatbelt. Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., No 08-1314 (U.S., certiorari granted May 24, 2010). The plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed by a California court of appeal which found that a federal motor vehicle safety standard authorizing car makers to install lap-only seat belts preempted the lawsuit.

They argue that the applicable 1989 regulations allowing the lap-only seat belts to protect rear-seat passengers represented the federal agency’s recognition “that lap/shoulder seatbelts were inherently safer and its regulations were intended to achieve ‘the earliest possible implementation of a requirement for rear-seat lap/shoulder belts.’” According to the plaintiffs, if the lower court’s ruling is allowed to stand, it would threaten “to undermine the valuable role Congress intended state tort law to play in providing incentives for manufacturers to develop safer vehicles than the federal minimum standards… That cannot be what Congress had in mind when it stated that compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard ‘does not exempt a person from liability at common law.’”

According to a news source, U.S. Supreme Court Justice-nominee Elena Kagan filed a brief in October 2009 at the Court’s request on behalf of the federal government in her role as solicitor general. She apparently urged the Court to hear the appeal, suggesting that the lower court misinterpreted the federal safety standard’s intent. The government’s brief argued that this federal safety standard is a “minimum standard” and that “the states are not foreclosed from concluding, through a duty of care applied in common-law tort actions, that one option is superior to others.”

In other U.S. Supreme Court action, the solicitor general has reportedly been asked to address the issues raised in litigation involving a woman allegedly harmed by the use of a generic prescription drug. If the Court agrees to hear the case, it will consider whether generic-drug manufacturers can be held liable for inadequate product-label warnings. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in 2009 that federal law does not bar these types of claims when generic-drug makers fail to change product labels to include information about safety risks. See Product Liability Law 360, May 24, 2010.