The Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, has commented on the application of recent U. S. Supreme Court cases involving product failure cases, specifically cases involving injury and death resulting from how auto manufacturers design seat belt systems in their cars and minivans. In the case of Clifton Lake et al v. The Memphis Landsmen, LLC et al, Case No. W2011-00660-COA-RM-CV, the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided to follow the framework set forth by the U. S. Supreme Court in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 141 L.Ed.2d 914 (2000), which held that when the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Administration issued regulations giving auto manufacturers a choice of whether to install lap belts or shoulder harness seatbelts in vehicles, regulation of seat belt systems was a significant objective of the regulations, meaning that state court lawsuits challenging a manufacturer’s design of those systems were pre-empted by federal regulation, and individuals were bringing suit to challenge the design were preempted. The effect of the Geier decision was to make it more difficult for injured citizens to bring suit challenging the design of a car or minivan’s seat belt restraint system when occupants were injured or killed as a result.
In this most recent decision, the Tennessee Court of Appeals dealt with application of Geier in relation to another more recent U. S. Supreme Court decision, Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc. et al, 131 S.Ct. 1131, 179 L.Ed.2d 75 (2011). In Williamson, the U. S. Supreme Court dealt with the issue of whether permimtting a state court suit attacking the manufacturer’s choice of using only a lap belt to continue would constitute a denial of a manufacturer’s ability to choose which seat belt system to use in its automobile design, or whether the issuance of federal motor vehicle safety regulations giving manufacturers the choice preempted state court lawsuits challenging the design of seat belt systems in its vehicles. On its face, the issue in Williamson appeared to be the same as in Geier, and therefore the Lake case as well.
The U. S. Supreme Court in Williamson tangled with the issue of preemption. In particular, the Court noted that the regulations at issue contained one clause expressly preempting certain lawsuits, another clause expressly allowing certain lawsuits to be brought (called a “savings clause”), and then addressed the issue of whether or not the state court lawsuit in question constituted a suit in conflict with the safety regulation, noting that longstanding federal decisions held that when a state court lawsuit conflicts with the objective of federal regulations, the regulations preempt the state court lawsuit, meaning the state court lawsuits could not be brought and must be dismissed. After stating the general principle of Geier that state court lawsuits attacking seat belt design restricted the choice given to manufacturers in federal safety regulations, and were therefore preepmpted, the Court in Williamson found circumstances that led it to conclude that the legal issue in play in Williamson did not represent an issue dealing with a significant objective of the federal safety regulation, and therefore, even though the state court lawsuit conflicted with federal safety regulations, the state court suit at issue in Williamson was not preempted.
Why the difference? Between the time of the Geier case and the Williamson case, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration changed its rules concerning manufacturer choice of set belts in passenger vehicles, specifically minivans. The U. S. Supreme Court in Williamson specifically analyzed not only the language of the two regulations, but looked into the intent and purpose for the change. The Court found that the original regulation in Geier represented a balance between safety but also consumer acceptance. At the time of issuance, mandating shoulder harness belts was not yet the norm in the U.S. By the time of Williamson, shoulder harness belts were commonplace, and the new regulations were speficially drafted to address safety concerns alone, not consumer acceptance. The Court found that the DOT was much less concerned with practical issues of whether shoulder belt harnesses were cumbersome or restrictive, and was instead focused squarely on pure concerns of increased safety. Indeed, the Court noted that the DOT itself did not believe that state court suits conflicted with seat belt regulations, since it considered the federal regulations to be minimum standards, meaning that state court lawsuits on seat belt design did not conflict with DOT regulations, since any effort to increase safety in use of seatbelts only enhanced the purpose of the regulations. In short, the regulation at issue in Williamson did not consider manufacturer choice to be of concern – only safety, and since the state court lawsuit was also concerned with safety, it did not conflict with federal safety regulations and was therefore permitted to exist.
Taking all of this in perspective, Tennessee Courts have again demonstrated their willingness to chart their own path, regardless of what the U. S. Supreme Court says. Writing for the unanimous majority, Judge Steve Stafford opined that the Williamson case provided no justification to conclude that plaintiffs’ case in Lake should be permitted, since under Geier, the Court reasoned it should be preempted. The Lake case involved a man who was injured when the commercial shuttle bus he was riding in was involved in a collision in Memphis. The bus in question had large tempered glass windows, “perimeter seating” where all seats faced toward the middle of the vehicle, and no seat belts. This type of vehicle is commonly used for transportation between airports and rental car facilities, and some courtesy shuttles. The plaintiff in Lake was ejected from the vehicle during the collision, resulting in a serious brain injury. The lawsuit filed against various defendants charged that the shuttle was defective in design because it did not contain seatbelts, that perimeter seating was inferor, and that the use of tempered glass was inappropriate. At trial, a jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding more than $8 million in damages, but placed all fault for the collision on the driver of a concrete truck, who had caused the collision to occur. Plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, ruled that a new trial was not warranted on the defective product theories about seat layout, use of tempered glass, and lack of seatbelts, because cases like Geier held that state law personal injury cases involving seat belt claims were preempted. In the meantime, the U. S. Supreme Court decided Williamson, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to review the case in light of Williamson. Instead, the Tennessee Supreme Court instructed the Western Section Court of Appeals to address the case in light of Williamson. After analyzing Williamson and Geier, the Western Section concluded that Williamson was a very narrow decision, concluding that Geier represented the general rule of law. In particular, the Western Section determined that the lesson of Geier and Williamson was that in seat belt cases, the fact that regulations gave manufacturers a choice of which seat belt system to use was not determinative of whether or not a state law case could be maintained. Instead, the Western Section found that the issue of manufacturer choice must be made in furtherance of a “specific regulatory objective” in order for state law tort claim to be preempted. In this way, the Western Section appeared to adopt the framework of Williamson. The Western Section also took from Williamson that the proper analysis requires that the Court look to the purpose and intent of the regulations to determine what the significant objectives of the regulations were, for purposes of determining whether a state court suit was preempted. On the tempered glass claim, the Western Section found that plaintiffs’ claims did conflict with federal regulations, since built into the regulations on glass was a choice given to manufacturers. The Western Section snapped back into a Geier analysis, reasoning that Williamson never supplanted Geier, it just distinguished it based on the facts of the Williamson case alone. Similarly, the Western Section employed the same approach on plaintiffs’ seat belt and seating claims. Overall, the Western Section took the perspective that it’s pre-Williamson ruling was sound, and need not be altered, since Williamson was a narrow, fact-driven decision that did not change the inherent rule of law espoused in Geier.
Based on the Lake decision from the Western Section Court of Appeals, Tennessee law follows Geier when facing state law claims involving seat belt and restraint system failures. Presumably, Tennessee jurisprudence would apply equally to any state law personal injury claim asserting a defect in motor vehicle safety. It remains to be seen if the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up Lake and further reflect on this analysis.