WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled last week that a wrongful death suit brought by a California man against Mazda Motor Corp. can proceed even though the seat belts in the 1993 minivan in which his wife died met federal safety requirements.
The decision arose from a 2002 accident in which a woman died while wearing a lap belt in the middle rear seat of a Mazda minivan. The lap belt met federal rules, but those rules gave Mazda the option of installing either a shoulder and lap belt combination or just a lap belt in that seating position.
Lawyers contacted by Automotive News generally agreed that the court's decision was likely to impact only the few regulations in which automakers were given a choice of what equipment to install. For example, regulators let automakers choose whether to install tempered glass or safer laminated glass in some applications.
But some feared automakers could face broader liability even while meeting federal standards. "This decision will likely open the door to other suits, and manufacturers will be more exposed," said Richard Caldwell, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer who has represented General Motors, Toyota and other automakers in product-liability suits.
In the past, courts have held that automakers are protected when they follow rules set by federal regulators.
The ruling allows the suit, by Delbert Williamson of California, to proceed in California state court. Other similar suits that have been filed but held up pending the high court's decision also will be allowed to proceed.
Williamson's wife, Thahn, was sitting in a middle rear seat in a 1993 MPV minivan when a head-on collision on a Utah highway caused her body to jackknife around the lap belt she was using, according to the suit.
To support its case, Mazda noted that a 2000 decision by the court barred suits over an automaker's decision not to install airbags when given a choice of passive restraining devices by federal rules.
GM, Toyota, Ford, Chrysler and Mazda declined to say how many lap belt suits are pending against them. A Honda spokesman said the company doesn't have any such suits pending.
Mazda said the decision "did not determine that Mazda was liable to the plaintiff or that the subject vehicle was defective."
It added: "We plan to vigorously defend this vehicle when the case heads back to trial court."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Detroit 3, Toyota and eight other automakers, and the Association of Global Automakers, which represents foreign manufacturers, expressed disappointment in the decision.
Vehicles directly affected by the ruling would be those in which lap belts were installed in a middle rear seat after the 1989 regulation allowing them and before the 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation rule requiring shoulder straps in all forward-facing seats.
Some luxury European cars did have shoulder straps in the middle rear seats during this period, Caldwell said.