WASHINGTON - Nearly all automobile manufacturers are going to bat for American Honda Motor Co. in a U.S. Supreme Court case deciding whether the carmaker was wrong not to put an airbag in a 1987 Accord.
But automakers are not the only heavy hitters trying to affect the outcome of the case. That's because powerful interests see more at stake than the already important dispute underlying the case.
Alexis Geier, owner of the 1987 Accord, drove it into a tree in 1992. She and her family, claiming that an airbag would have prevented her serious injuries, sued Honda for $20.5 million.
Lower federal courts rejected the lawsuit, but the Supreme Court accepted an appeal. The main issue is whether federal motor vehicle safety standards, which in 1987 did not require airbags, prevent people from suing carmakers for not going beyond the standards to protect customers.
The automakers' trade associations, in a joint Nov. 19 brief to the high court, said an unfavorable ruling would 'allow motor vehicles to be subject to a multitude of safety standards in different states,' despite the national nature of the business.
'The result would be intolerable,' wrote attorneys for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. Honda is a member of AIAM but not of the Alliance.
Joining automakers in saying the federal standards should take precedence over 'common law' are the U.S. government, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Association, among others.
The Business Roundtable, representing the nation's largest corporations, said the high court has a chance to guarantee 'uniform legal standards' nationwide.
Weighing in on the Geier family's side are the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, seventeen state attorneys general and organizations representing states, counties and cities, among others.
'It is implausible here to suggest that Congress intended to leave injured persons without a remedy when it merely barred competing state standards and expressly reserved the availability of common law liability,' the attorneys general said.
Even Geier's lawyers wrote, 'This case is about federalism and the separation of powers.'
The flurry of legal filings is a prelude to a one-hour oral argument before the nine justices Tuesday, Dec. 7. Only attorneys for Geier, Honda and the federal government will get portions of the time.
Each year the court hears arguments in just dozens of the thousands of appeals it receives.