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Highlight Updates Preemptive Effect of Federal Safety Standards

Preemption issues are also likely to arise in claims based on defects that affect the safety of motor vehicles, which are generally governed by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act307 and the regulations promulgated thereunder. The Act contains an express preemption provision which provides that a state cannot maintain a motor vehicle safety standard that is applicable to the same aspect of vehicle performance as a federal standard, unless it is identical to the federal standard.308 The Act also contains several savings clauses, however. It provides that compliance with the federal standards does not exempt any person from liability at common law.309 In addition, it provides that the Act does not establish or affect any warranty obligation under federal or state law.310 And, finally, it provides that “a remedy under [specified sections of the Act] is in addition to other rights and remedies under other laws of the United States or a State.”311

In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., the United States Supreme Court decided that, despite its savings clause, the Act impliedly preempted a tort action alleging that a manufacturer’s failure to include an airbag was negligent and constituted a defective design.312 The Court ruled that the premise on which the plaintiff’s case was based, that the manufacturer had a duty to install an airbag, conflicted with the federal standard that was in effect at the time. That standard did not require airbags but was designed to promote the use of a variety of different passive restraint devices. It gradually phased in passive restraints and gave manufacturers a range of choices among various passive restraint devices.313

The precedential value of Geier was greatly reduced by a 2011 decision, Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc.314 The case deals with the same safety standard dealt with in Geier, but the standard has undergone substantial revision since Geier was decided. The revised version, like the Geier version, offers manufacturers some choices among restraint devices, but the Supreme Court held that promoting the use of a range of different devices is no longer a significant objective of the standard. The Court held that the mere fact that the standard gave manufacturers some choices was not sufficient to preempt state claims. The Court also refused to treat the federal standard as a maximum standard, holding that this approach would be inconsistent with the statute’s savings clause. It thus held that the federal law did not preempt a tort suit that was based on a manufacturer’s installation of a lap belt, rather than a lap-and-shoulder belt, even though the federal standard had provided only that the manufacturer had to install one or the other.315

If the vehicle is not governed by a standard that provides manufacturers a range of options, then Geier is not relevant at all.316 Further, when the objective of the standard at issue is not to encourage choices, but to set minimum standards (a “floor”), state claims should not be preempted on the basis of a conflict.317 The existence of the savings clause is a strong indication that the federal standards should not generally be interpreted as maximum standards, because to do so would unduly drain the savings clause of meaning.318 In a 2010 Federal Register notice, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disavowed some of the aggressive claims of preemption in its earlier rulemakings.319

In addition, when a federal standard is not directly implicated, no conflict preemption should be found.320 State law claims will be preempted on conflict grounds only if it is impossible to comply with both the state and federal requirements, or the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress’s purposes.321 For example, in a case alleging that certain Jeeps contained a design defect which caused them to self-shift from park to reverse, the plaintiffs raised claims of breach of warranty and violation of state consumer protection statutes. The court found that there was no specific federal standard with respect to prevention of an “unintended park-reverse shift,” and therefore there was no specific conflict.322 Even a claim based on the failure of a vehicle’s restraint system to protect an occupant is not preempted if it challenges the design of the restraint system rather than the manufacturer’s choice of that particular type of restraint.323

Claims based on express warranties should not be preempted, because such warranties are not imposed by state law but are created by the warrantor.324 There is also no conflict with the federal standards when the manufacturer has incorporated them into its warranty and the buyer’s suit merely seeks to enforce them.325 On the other hand, a court held that NHTSA’s specification of warning language for airbags was the sole language that the agency wanted to be used on the subject, so a claim that the manufacturer should have included additional warnings was preempted.326


  • 307 {288} 49 U.S.C. §§ 30101–30170.

  • 308 {289} 49 U.S.C. § 30103(b).

  • 309 {290} 49 U.S.C. § 30103(e). See Hernandez v. Ford Motor Co., 2005 WL 1830660 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 2, 2005) (relying on similar language in Consumer Product Safety Act clause to find no preemption of claim that vehicle had defective roof); Martin v. Ford Motor Co., 914 F. Supp. 1449 (S.D. Tex. 1996) (noting this savings clause and holding that express warranty claims are not preempted because not based on state law but imposed by warrantor, but warranty claims are preempted to the extent they rely on recognition of a state standard that exceeds the federal standard). Cf. Morgan v. Ford Motor Co., 680 S.E.2d 77 (W. Va. 2009) (relying on this savings clause to hold that federal Act does not expressly preempt state tort suits, but holding that claim regarding type of window glass is impliedly preempted).

  • 310 {291} 49 U.S.C. § 30103(d). See Cuellar v. Ford Motor Co., 723 N.W.2d 747 (Wis. Ct. App. 2006) (relying on this savings clause to hold that claims under secret warranty law are not preempted).

  • 311 49 U.S.C. § 30103(d). See Paris Limousine of Okla., L.L.C. v. Executive Coach Builders, Inc., 867 F.3d 871 (8th Cir. 2017) (relying in part on this provision to hold that federal law does not preempt claim that seller breached express warranty that vehicle would conform to federal safety standards); Henryhand v. Dorel Juvenile Grp., Inc., 2017 WL 7806620 (C.D. Cal. June 13, 2017) (relying in part on this provision; federal standards for infant safety seats do not occupy the field or preempt claim that manufacturer misrepresented seat’s capacity); Logan v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., 2011 WL 3267831 (E.D. Ky. July 29, 2011) (relying on this savings clause to find no preemption of strict liability, negligence, and warranty claims regarding defective tire).

  • 312 {292} 529 U.S. 861, 120 S. Ct. 1913, 146 L. Ed. 2d 914 (2000); See also Griffith v. Gen. Motors Corp., 303 F.3d 1276 (11th Cir. 2002) (claim that manufacturer should not have chosen lap belt as only restraint system is preempted; disapproved of by Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131, 1140 n.* (2011) (Sotomayor, J., concurring)); Moser v. Ford Motor Co., 2001 WL 1387600 (4th Cir. Nov. 8, 2001) (claim that seat belt system had defect that would be common to all seat belt systems is preempted, as is duty to warn claim, but claim that this particular seat belt system was defectively designed would not be preempted if it caused plaintiff’s injuries); Hurley v. Motor Coach Indus., 222 F.3d 377, 381–383 (7th Cir. 2000) (federal standards for buses, which also allow manufacturers to choose among several restraint/protection systems, preempt product liability action that claimed that manufacturer should have chosen safer system); Surles v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 2005 WL 1703153 (E.D. Tenn. July 20, 2005) (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s decision not to require seatbelts in buses preempts claim that manufacturer had common law duty to include seatbelts); Anthony v. Abbott, 289 F. Supp. 2d 667 (D. V.I. 2003) (claim that manufacturer should have included side airbag is preempted); Stewart v. Gen. Motors Corp., 222 F. Supp. 2d 845 (W.D. Ky. 2002) (conflict preemption bars claim that manufacturer’s airbag warnings were inadequate), aff’d on other grounds, 2004 WL 1532235 (6th Cir. June 25, 2004); Carrasquilla v. Mazda Motor Corp., 166 F. Supp. 2d 169 (M.D. Pa. 2001) (challenges to manufacturer’s choice of restraint system are preempted, but claims of defective design of other safety features are not); Hernandez-Gomez v. Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 32 P.3d 424 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2001) (federal law preempts claim that manufacturer should have added a manual lap belt to restraint system it chose); Osman v. Ford Motor Co., 833 N.E.2d 1011 (Ill. App. Ct. 2005) (deceptive practices and design defect claims, based on manufacturer’s failure to warn of dangers of using shoulder belt without manual seat belt, are preempted). But see Chevere v. Hyundai Motor Co., 774 N.Y.S.2d 6 (N.Y. App. Div. 2004) (claim that seat belt system was defectively designed and occupant protection system was unfit for intended use not preempted).

  • 313 {293} Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 880, 881 (2000).

  • 314 {294} 562 U.S. 323, 131 S. Ct. 1131, 179 L. Ed. 2d 75 (2011). See also Catherine M. Sharkey, Inside Agency Preemption, 110 Mich. L. Rev. 521, 532–533, 544–545 (2011) (describing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s arguments against preemption in Williamson and its assertion that lower courts had applied Geier too broadly).

  • 315 {295} See also MCI Sales & Serv., Inc. v. Hinton, 329 S.W.3d 475 (Tex. 2010) (regulation allowing bus manufacturer a limited choice among several glazing materials does not preempt state claims). But see Soliman v. Daimler AG, 2011 WL 6945707 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 8, 2011) (mag.) (concluding in pro se case that Department of Transportation regulation allowing manufacturers a choice of methods of anchoring seatbelts preempts claim that chosen method was dangerous, but with very cursory analysis of whether promoting choices was a significant objective), adopted by 2011 WL 4594313 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2011); Priester v. Cromer, 736 S.E.2d 249 (S.C. 2012) (concluding that mere presence of choice between two window glazing options precludes tort suit against manufacturer for choosing one of the options, even though neither option was safer in all circumstances).

  • 316 {296} Noveck v. PV Holdings Corp., 742 F. Supp. 2d 284 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (claim of defective design because of lack of side curtain airbags not preempted, as standards for this vehicle do not allow options), aff’d, 446 Fed. Appx. 370 (2nd Cir. 2011); Durham v. Cty. of Maui, 696 F. Supp. 2d 1150 (D. Haw. 2010) (denying preemption of claim that car should have included side airbags; noting that federal standards applicable to this vehicle no longer give manufacturers a range of options).

  • 317 {297} Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 868 (2000). See also O’Hara v. Gen. Motors Corp., 508 F.3d 753 (5th Cir. 2007) (NHTSA’s regulation regarding side window glazing sets minimum standard, so common law negligence and strict liability claims are not preempted); Harris v. Great Dane Trailers, Inc., 234 F.3d 398 (8th Cir. 2000) (no preemption when federal rule only set minimum standard, not uniform national standard, for reflective marks on rear of vehicle); Hernandez v. Ford Motor Co., 2005 WL 1830660 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 2, 2005) (relying on savings clause to find no preemption of claim that vehicle had defective roof); Lohman v. Daimler-Chrysler Corp., 166 P.3d 1091 (N.M. Ct. App. 2007) (claim that seat belt buckles violated federal standards is not preempted; manufacturer’s self-certification of compliance with those standards is not a basis for preemption, as it was addressed to dealers and distributors rather than federal agency); Lake v. Memphis Landsmen, L.L.C., 405 S.W.3d 47 (Tenn. 2013) (negligence and products liability claims not preempted by NHTSA’s failure to require seatbelts in large buses or to require laminated glass in side windows). Cf. Lloyd v. Gen. Motors Corp., 266 F.R.D. 98 (D. Md. 2010) (federal seatback crashworthiness standards do not preempt state claims, but the possibility that jury could impose new industry-wide standard is reason to deny class certification), renewed motion for class certification denied, 275 F.R.D. 224 (D. Md. 2011) (even though personal injury claims may be preserved by savings clause, class action seeking repair costs would amount to rewrite of federal standards and cannot be certified). But see Majia v. White GMC Trucks, Inc., 784 N.E.2d 345 (Ill. App. Ct. 2002) (claim of defect in design of vehicle door is preempted; persuasive dissent).

  • 318 {298} Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 562 U.S. 323, 335–336, 131 S. Ct. 1131, 179 L. Ed. 2d 75 (2011).

  • 319 {299} 75 Fed. Reg. 33,515, 33,524–33,526 (June 14, 2010).

  • 320 {300} Lassen v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 211 F. Supp. 3d 1267 (C.D. Cal. 2016) (no preemption when NHTSA had not yet adopted its proposed rule on the subject); Dawood v. Mercedes-Benz USA, L.L.C., 2016 WL 3960029 (W.D. Wash. July 22, 2016) (NHTSA’s requirement of a visor-mounted airbag warning does not preempt claim that manufacturer should have warned car owner about a different part; rejecting “warning overload” preemption theory); Besse v. Gen. Motors Corp., 317 F. Supp. 2d 646 (D.S.C. 2004); Kent v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 200 F. Supp. 2d 1208 (N.D. Cal. 2002); Talalai v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., 823 A.2d 888 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001) (UDAP damage suit does not seek to impose regulations or standards so is not preempted); Korthas v. Suzuki Motor Co., 735 N.Y.S.2d 322 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (products liability claim concerning defective design of motorcycle side stand not preempted because federal statute did not address the feature that plaintiff claimed was defective); Baldwin v. Golden Hawk Transp. Co., 827 N.E.2d 780 (Ohio Ct. App. 2005). See also Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 115 S. Ct. 1483, 131 L. Ed. 2d 385 (1995) (Act did not expressly preempt state common-law design defect claims against manufacturers of trucks that were not equipped with anti-lock braking system because no federal standard was in effect, and no evidence of intent to have no standard); Fabian v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 628 F.3d 278 (6th Cir. 2010) (claim that manufacturer fraudulently misrepresented that its helmets complied with federal standards is not preempted, as it has no potential of creating a conflict with that standard).

  • 321 See Henryhand v. Dorel Juvenile Grp., Inc., 2017 WL 7806620 (C.D. Cal. June 13, 2017) (implied warranty and other state law claims regarding unsafe infant car seats are not preempted by federal labeling standards adopted under National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act).

  • 322 {301} Kent v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 200 F. Supp. 2d 1208, 1215, 1216 (N.D. Cal. 2002). See also Talalai v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., 2001 WL 1877265 (D.N.J. Jan. 8, 2001) (no preemption when suit seeks damages rather than judicial recall).

  • 323 {302} Volkswagen of Am., Inc. v. Gentry, 564 S.E.2d 733 (Ga. Ct. App. 2002).

  • 324 {303} Paris Limousine of Okla., L.L.C. v. Executive Coach Builders, Inc., 867 F.3d 871 (8th Cir. 2017) (federal law does not preempt claim that seller breached express warranty that vehicles would comply with federal safety standards); Martin v. Ford Motor Co., 914 F. Supp. 1449, 1454 (S.D. Tex. 1996) (express warranty claims not preempted because not based on state law but imposed by warrantor).

  • 325 Paris Limousine of Okla., L.L.C. v. Executive Coach Builders, Inc., 867 F.3d 871 (8th Cir. 2017).

  • 326 {304} Fisher v. Ford Motor Co., 224 F.3d 570 (6th Cir. 2000); Morris v. Mitsubishi Motors N. Am., Inc., 782 F. Supp. 2d 1149 (E.D. Wash. 2011). But cf. Henryhand v. Dorel Juvenile Grp., Inc., 2017 WL 7806620 (C.D. Cal. June 13, 2017) (safety regulation that prohibits additional information on infant car seat label that would obscure federally required information or mislead consumers does not preempt claim that seller misrepresented seat’s capacity).