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Mazda seat belt case may split court

Bloomberg News / November 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — US Supreme Court justices signaled they may divide, perhaps evenly, in a case involving Mazda Motor Corp. that could open automakers to more consumer lawsuits over vehicle safety.

Hearing arguments yesterday in Washington, several justices hinted they would let accident victims sue even when automakers meet minimum federal standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “A minimum by definition gives manufacturers options,’’ Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

Others, including Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested they would vote to limit lawsuits and reinforce a 2000 decision that shielded carmakers from some claims.

The court might deadlock 4-to-4 because Elena Kagan, the newest justice, has disqualified herself. As the Obama administration’s solicitor general earlier this year, she urged the court to take the case. A tie vote would leave intact a lower court victory for the automakers without setting a national precedent.

The auto industry is asking the court to bolster the 2000 decision, which said US law shields automakers from state law claims that manufacturers didn’t move quickly enough to install air bags in the years before they became mandatory in new cars. The US Chamber of Commerce, food producers, and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side.

NHTSA has 59 safety standards that govern automotive components, including windshield wipers, internal trunk releases, and seat belts. The standards set performance guidelines that manufacturers must follow.

Justice Stephen Breyer hinted he was inclined to defer to the federal agency, which says its standards shouldn’t shield carmakers from suits claiming they didn’t do enough to make vehicles as safe as possible.

Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan, was sued by the family of Thanh Williamson, 32, who died in 2002 in Utah as she was riding in a rear aisle seat in the second row of a 1993 MPV minivan.

When the minivan was manufactured, seat belts that buckled only over the lap were permitted by law for some back seat passengers.