New York Court of Appeals Rules That Bus Seat Belt Claims Were Not Preempted

New York’s highest court has ruled that the claim of bus passengers injured in a single-vehicle bus wreck which sought to hold the bus manufacturer liable for the failure to install  passenger seatbelts on the bus were not preempted by federal regulations promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In Doomes v. Best Transit Corp.,  No. 170 (N.Y.Ct. App. Oct. 18, 2011),  several bus passengers were injured after a dozing bus driver caused a single-vehicle bus crash.  The Doomes plaintiffs and several other passengers sued several defendants and reached settlements with some of them.  The claim against the bus manufacturer Warrick was not settled.  
The jury found the bus manufacturer partially liable for the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs due to lack of seat belts.  On appeal, Warrick asserted several points, including an argument that the jury was improperly allowed to consider that the bus was defective or that it was negligent due to a lack of seatbelts because  FMVSS 208 (49 CFR 571.208), which did not require the installation of passenger seatbelts, preempted any claims of liability for failure to install such seatbelts.
The court affirmed the verdict, holding  that the claims of the bus passengers concerning the seat belts were not barred by either express or implied preemption.  The opinion has a nice summary of the law on both subjects.
This is an important decision and will be of great assistance to those asserting claims on behalf of bus passengers in the future.  The motorcoach industry transports more than 750 million passengers per year.  Between 1999 and 2008, there were 54 fatal motorcoach crashes resulting in 186 fatalities, most of them passengers ejected from buses.  These numbers do not include injuries and deaths on school buses, the vast majority of which do not have seatbelts.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been encouraging NHTSA to require seatbelts in buses for years but NHTSA has been dragging its feet.  This decision by the New York Court of Appeals gives the green light for  jurors to send the message to bus manufacturers that our citizens expect this basic safety device in motorcoachs and school buses.
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