February 23, 2011

Williamson v. Mazda: Sound and Clear Preemption Decision

The Supreme Court today issued its much-awaited ruling in Williamson v. Mazda. Could an injured or deceased plaintiff sue under common law for damages allegedly attributable to the lack of a rear inner seat seatbelt, when the Department of Transportation (DOT) had declined to require such belts while requiring other seat belts?   The case on its face appeared much like the Court’s earlier Geier v. American Honda Motor Co decision, issued in 2000, in which the Court held that a common law injury claim for the lack of an airbag was preempted due to DOT’s decision to allow manufacturers to choose among safety devices.   Many lower courts had read Geier expansively, thus preempting claims like those now presented in Williamson. But the reach of that ruling was always in question since the Geier case could also be read in a narrow way, limited to the particular DOT regulatory action, and also because the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act actually contained a “savings clause” that explicitly stated that compliance with a “federal safety standard does not exempt any person from liability under common law.” The Geier Court sidestepped that language by concluding that DOT’s regulatory allowance of manufacturer choice precluded a jury concluding under a common law claim that the manufacturer should earlier have put an airbag in place. Such a claim in Geier was held preempted under so-called conflict or “obstacle” preemption doctrine.

The Supreme Court today in Williamson soundly rejected the lower court’s ruling and issued a decision that limits Geier and shows greater respect for Congress’s actual statutory language.   The ruling contains several critical building blocks that will now be much-used in future injury and preemption litigation. First, the Court looked closely at the actual underlying regulatory action to see if the federal agency really had meant to preclude common law claims, as well as whether a common law injury claim would actually clash with the agency’s choice and that choice’s underlying rationale.   DOT here had not expressed a pro-preemption view, and in issuing its standard about seat belts had basically said it wouldn’t require them in rear center seats but hoped manufacturers would find ways to install them and enhance safety. If a safety standard is to be the source of a preemption claim, Williamson as precedent will call for close attention to what the agency really did. The mere existence of a related safety standard will not suffice. And the mere fact that the DOT assessed costs and benefits in rejecting such a mandate did not preclude the Williamsons’ lawsuit. “[T]hat negative judgment about cost effectiveness . . . cannot by itself show that DOT sought to forbid common-law tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion.” To hold to the contrary would turn regulatory floors, or minimum standards, into “maximum standards.” Such a conclusion could not “be reconciled” with the law’s “statutory savings clause.”

Second, the Court here, as in several (but not all) recent preemption decisions, weighed heavily the views of the federal government. Neither the DOT nor the Solicitor General’s office argued for preemption in the case; the United States brief sided with the claimant petitioners. The Court noted this as part of the rationale for its ruling. Since the government’s anti-preemption brief and argument was rooted in close attention to the regulatory action and statutory language, its arguments dovetailed well with the outcome on the merits.   In contrast, late in the Bush Administration, many agencies routinely claimed broad preemptive impact of their actions; today’s decision should not open the floodgates to future similar excessive preemption claims since the Court’s decision showed nuanced attention to what the agency actually did, not just accepting a conclusory claim of preemptive impact. The Court’s close attention today to what the agency did and did not do can be harmonized with the Court’s 2009 ruling in Wyeth v. Levine, where the Court rejected manufacturer claims of preemption of drug injury claims, and where manufacturers relied heavily on a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy reversal that resulted in a pro-preemption FDA position.    In Wyeth, the Court looked closely at the history of the FDA’s views and found that the policy reversal embracing a preemptive outcome lacked preceding regulatory vetting and was not worthy of deference. These two cases can be reconciled: the Williamson court pointed out that the DOT had not “expressed inconsistent views on this subject” and quoted consistent past DOT briefs on the preemption issue. Courts now need to look in detail at what the agency’s claimed preemptive action actually did. And, as usual, consistent agency regulatory policies and litigation positions will weigh in favor of the government’s position. 

Third, the Williamson Court paid close attention to the actual statutory language that preserved common law claims with an express savings clause. Both the Supreme Court and many lower courts have at times given little attention to this critical indicator of congressional intent.   Today’s decision shows a return to close attention to statutory language.

Today’s decision shows sound respect for congressional language choices and carefully considered regulatory judgments. In addition, by preserving the possibility of common law claims, the Court, like Congress in the underlying law, leaves in place incentives for manufacturers to remain vigilant in looking for ways to make their products safer. Preemption battles will continue, but today’s decision will likely stem the tide of pro-preemption claims based on past regulatory mandates and approvals.


William Buzbee, CPR Member Scholar; Prof. of Law, Georgetown Law Center. Bio.

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