Seat Belt Lawsuit Likely to End in Draw

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely deadlock 4-4 in a seat belt design defect wrongful death lawsuit against where Mazda is arguing that Plaintiff’s claim is preempted by federal law. The seat belt at issue is a lap-only seat belt, which I think sounds defective on its face by most of us. Mazda does not make them anymore. Neither does anyone else.

A tie is a win for Mazda because it won the case below. Justice Elena Kagan is sitting this one out because, as Solicitor General, she urged the Supreme Court to consider the case. I’m sure she will consider the facts anew when she gets a crack at this in a different context, but is there any real doubt about how Justice Kagan is going to rule on this?

I realize it is a conflict because she looked at it as an advocate. But, real world, is it a good idea that Mazda wins a case that we all know is going to get flipped next time the same fact pattern is heard? While I’m on a roll asking rhetorical questions, is it worse to be an advocate in a case you end up ruling upon or going hunting with a buddy (Scalia and Chaney) and then deciding a case where your buddy is a party? (I don’t care that the lawsuit was not “personal”. Every lawsuit with your name on it is personal on some level.) Think about your relationship with anyone you have ever taken a social trip with out of the state. You are pretty tight. I can’t think of a person in the history of my life that I have taken an out-of-state trip with that I could not be objective about.

But that is old news, I drudge this up only to underscore how loosely the Supreme Court has been about conflicts in the past. The real point is the injustice to the Plaintiffs who never get their day in court in a case that has been won before their lawsuit and will be won again after they lose. It just seems unfair.

What about Mazda’s argument? Mazda is saying, look, the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not object to lap belts before 2007. This is an old car. We can’t retrofit every car for every change and we had no information that people were dying in car accidents from these seat belts.

Not a bad argument. It might convince me if I were on the jury. But what does the evidence show? Did Mazda know these lap belts were causing fatal car accidents? Did someone at Mazda express a concern about it, and were they dismissed with a “don’t worry, we won’t have any liability” response? I don’t know. This is why we have a discovery process and this is why we have jury trials.

  • Back when I was a defense lawyer (over some 10 years ago) I was representing Nissan on the first rear lap belt case to go to trial. It went to trial in Federal Court in LA. These are tough cases for either side to win. Preemption was never raised as back then, no one really looked at that issue. We (Nissan) won that case. Bottom line is there are technical/research articles on this issue that go both ways. We know today that yes, three point belts are a definite improvement over 2 points. Issue years ago was usage, i.e. a belt is only good if it is used, and until mandatory use laws, belt usage was very low. It was felt people were more apt to wear a 2 point then a 3 point, so 2 points were put in rear. Anyway, complicated issue, but if preemption is the tipping point on this, should be interesting to see where the court falls on this.

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