The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal regulations setting vehicle safety standards do not bar lawsuits seeking damages from automakers for installing lap-only seat belts.
The unanimous ruling held that a California lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp. over a fatal 2002 collision involving a 1993 Mazda minivan could proceed. A passenger sitting in a rear seat and wearing a lap-only seat belt was killed.
The lawsuit by the family of the passenger, Thanh Williamson, claimed that the minivan was defectively designed because it lacked a lap-and-shoulder seat belt for the rear seat.
Mazda said it complied with federal safety regulations in effect at the time and that an appellate court in California correctly ruled the product liability lawsuit could not go forward.
The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court ruling.
Justice Stephen Breyer said in the court’s opinion that the federal safety regulation does not pre-empt state tort lawsuits claiming manufacturers should have installed lap-and-shoulder belts, instead of lap-only belts, on rear inner seats.