Product Liability Rollover Suit Not Preempted

A products liability suit in a rollover accident was not preempted by federal regulations according to a recent decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This decision rejects a common defense used by manufacturers in defending product liability claims brought by injured consumers claiming injuries from defective products. Plaintiff brought suit in a Texas state court against GM alleging serious injuries when she was partially ejected from the passenger side window of a Tahoe. The complaint alleged common law theories of strict liability and negligence for the defective design, manufacture, and marketing of the Tahoe’s side windows. Plaintiff claimed GM’s use of tempered glass in the side windows was unreasonably dangerous and that the use of advanced glazing would have decreased the likelihood of passenger ejection. GM removed the action to federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals succinctly stated the issue: “This appeal is about whether FMVSS 205, which governs motor vehicle safety, preempts a common law suit alleging that GM’s use of a permitted glazing technology was unsafe. We are the first appellate court to rule on this question.” O’Hara v. GM, (slip opinion at p. 6) (2007). GM argued that a 2002 decision to leave the existing standards regarding glazing intact (FMVSS 205) embodies a federal policy regarding motor vehicle glazing would be frustrated by a Texas common law rule requiring advanced glazing in side windows. GM contented thatGeier v. American Honda Motor Co., 5529 U.S. 861 (2000), which found that FMVSS 208 (the NHTSA safety standard for occupant crash protection) compelled preemption of state common law claims. Plaintiff contended that FMVSS 205 differs significantly from FMVSS 208 and that NHTSA’s decision not to require advance glazing in side windows left FMVSS 205 intact as a “minimum safety standard” that does not preempt state tort actions. Plaintiff further argued that NHTSA’s decision not to require advance glazing in side windows is similar to the Coast Guard’s decision not to require propeller guards, which was held to be non-preemptive inSprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51 (2002).

Conflict preemption was discussed with the Court stating: “Even where Congress has not completely displaced state regulation in a specific area, state law is nullified to the extent that it actually conflicts with federal law. Fid. Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n. v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 153 (1982). Federal regulations can have a preemptive effect equal to that of federal laws. Conflict preemption can arise in one of two ways, either when compliance with both federal regulations and state regulations is a physical impossibility or when state laws stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress. The second form of implied conflict preemption is at issue here.”O’Hara v. GM, (slip opinion at p. 7) 2007.

In Sprietsma, The U.S. Supreme Court held that nothing in the Coast Guard’s official explanation for not requiring propeller guards on all boats “would be inconsistent with a tort verdict premised on a jury’s finding that some type of propeller guard should have been installed on this particular kind of boat” and that it did not “convey an authoritative message of a federal policy against propeller guards.” Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51, 67 (2002).

In Sprietsma, The U.S. Supreme Court held that nothing in the Coast Guard’s official explanation for not requiring propeller guards on all boats “would be inconsistent with a tort verdict premised on a jury’s finding that some type of propeller guard should have been installed on this particular kind of boat” and that it did not “convey an authoritative message of a federal policy against propeller guards.” Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine, 537 U.S. 51, 67 (2002).

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in O’Hara concluded: “Because the text and commentary on FMVSS 205 show that it is best understood as a minimum safety standard, we hold that the O’Hara’s common law negligence and strict liability claims are not preempted.” O’Hara v. GM, (slip opinion at p. 15) (2007). As the Court acknowledged in its decision this is an issue that has not previously been ruled upon by other Circuit Courts or by any state court. The effect of this decision will be far reaching and will allow claims for injuries cause by defective products to proceed even in the presence of federal regulations, as long as the claims do not involve conflict preemption that can arise in on of two ways: “when compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility” or “when state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” O’Hara, (slip opinion at p. 7) (2007). Injured victims of defective products will not find the courthouse doors shut merely because a federal regulation sets a “minimum safety standard.” For defendant manufacturers to rely on federal preemption to dismiss common law claims for defective products, they must now show either a physical impossibility of complying with both federal and state regulations or that the state law acts as an obstacle to accomplishment and execution of the purposes and objectives of Congress.Good news indeed to victims of unsafe products!