Minnesota's so-called seat belt gag rule prohibits any product liability suit in which use or nonuse of a belt is involved, even if the restraint system itself is allegedly defective, according to a federal appeals court.
By a 2-1 vote, the court rejected a crashworthiness suit that alleged the seat belt and door frame of a 1991 Hyundai Excel were designed and manufactured defectively.
The injured plaintiff has asked the court for a new hearing. Meanwhile, the state legislature is expected to consider repealing the law this year, her lawyer said.
An appeals lawyer for Hyundai Motor America, Robert Lewis of Minneapolis, called the federal decision consistent with rulings by Minnesota state courts. He said plaintiffs also may try to find other states to sue manufacturers in, even if the crashes occurred in Minnesota.
The case was filed by Jodi Carlson, a front-seat passenger who was ejected through an opening between the door frame and the door - despite the fact that she wore a lap belt and shoulder harness. After the 1995 single-car crash, she sued Hyundai for strict liability, negligence and breach of warranty, alleging that the passive restraint system and door frame were defective and unreasonably dangerous.
She settled with the driver.
Without addressing the merits of the product liability allegations, a federal judge in Minneapolis dismissed the suit without trial, relying on a 1963 state law that precludes 'proof of the use or failure to use seat belts or proof of the installation or failure of installation of seat belts' in any personal injury or property damage case involving a motor vehicle accident.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld that decision, saying the law applies to crashworthiness claims, even if non-seat belt defects in the vehicle are alleged.
The law 'bars Carlson from introducing evidence that the seat belt system was installed, in use and failed to prevent her ejection,' Appeals Judge James Loken said in the majority opinion. 'If Carlson cannot prove that the seat belt system failed of its essential crashworthiness purpose, then she cannot prove that Hyundai failed to use reasonable care to prevent accident injuries in its vehicle design as a whole.'
Carlson's attorney and stepfather, George Duranske of Bemidji, said the law originally was passed as a pro-plaintiff measure because insurance companies were suggesting that plaintiffs who failed to buckle up were partially responsible for their own injuries. Later, courts interpreted the law as also applying to product liability suits.
In the past, the Minnesota legislature passed repeal bills that were vetoed by the former governor. Duranske said that a repeal proposal is being reintroduced this year and that Carlson will testify in its support. He predicted it will pass the legislature again and win approval from the new governor, Jesse Ventura.