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California Seat Belt Defect Lawsuit: US Supreme Court Says Family Can Sue Mazda for Wrongful Death

December 31, 1969

Reversing a ruling dismissing a family's California seat belt defect lawsuit over the 2002 wrongful death of a woman who had been using a lap belt, the US Supreme Court says that the products liability case against Mazda can proceed. The family of Thanh Williamson contends that she wouldn't have died in a head-on car crash if the automaker had equipped the middle rear seat of the 1993 minivan she was riding in with a lap and shoulder belt. The passengers in the vehicle with her who were using this type of belt survived the traffic crash.

Judges had dismissed the California wrongful death lawsuit on the grounds that Geier v. American Honda Motor Company, a 2000 US Supreme Court ruling protected car manufacturers from lawsuits, related to their failure to immediately install air bags in all their autos. The US Supreme Court, however, says that the issue of lap belt vs. lap and shoulder belts is different from the issue posed by air bags, whose effectiveness at the time was still doubted by federal safety regulators. Federal safety regulators knew that lap and shoulder belts were safer than lap belts.

Also, Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that while the Geier v. American Honda Motor Company ruled that federal safety regulations preempt the filing of personal injury cases that claim a manufacturer made the wrong choice, the US Supreme Court now finds that the regulations establish the "minimum" that the law requires and products liability cases may be helpful in getting car manufacturers to make their vehicles even more safe.

Five days after its opinion in Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, the ruling's impact could already be felt as the court revived Priester v. Ford Motor Co., another auto products liability lawsuit. Its plaintiff, Mary Robyn Priester, claims Ford was negligent when it used tempered glass on its windows.

Priester's son, James Lloyd Priester, died after he was ejected from his 1997 Ford F-150 pickup. She contends that if the automaker had used some type of glazing on its windows, he would not have been thrown from the vehicle. Federal safety regulation allowed tempered glass as an option for side windows.

Supreme Court OKs lawsuits over cars' lack of best safety equipment, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2011

Ford Pickup Suit Revived by High Court After Mazda Ruling, Bloomberg, February 28, 2011

Supreme Court: Mazda Can Be Sued for Lack of Backseat Belts in Vans, ABC News, February 23, 2011

Related Web Resources:
Geier v. American Honda Motor Company

Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America (PDF)

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