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US Supreme Court allows seatbelt lawsuit against car makers

In 2002 the passenger of a Mazda minivan was killed in a fatal car accident. The passenger was sitting in a rear seat in the van and was wearing his seat belt. Unfortunately the vehicle had only lap belts in the rear seat. The deceased passenger's family has claimed in their lawsuit that the vehicle was the product of a defective design because it failed to provide a shoulder belt for the passengers in the rear seat.

The vehicle manufacturer argued that it had complied with federal safety regulations that were in place at the time the minivan was manufactured, and that therefore the product liability case should not be allowed to proceed. The Supreme Court disagreed with the car makers and overturned the ruling of the lower appellate court. In a unanimous opinion the court ruled that compliance with the safety regulation does not block people from bringing lawsuits in state court's arguing that the manufacturers should have installed shoulder belts.

This ruling highlights an issue that can come up in cases where someone is killed by a defective product, but where the product meets some federal guideline or safety regulation. The issue boils down to whether meeting those regulations means that the product is ruled 'safe' and the manufacturers are then immune from any lawsuit when the product causes injuries, or whether those safety regulations are a minimum standard for safety, and that if the products do not meet at least that standard they cannot even be sold to the public.

The court in this case seems to adopt the position that seat belt regulations are only a minimum safety standard and do not grant manufactures immunity from liability.

Source: Reuters News "Supreme Court allows lawsuits over seat belts" February 23, 2011

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