Sadly, vehicle seat belts do not represent a catchall solution to end car accident deaths. In fact, a recent Supreme Court case indicates that one victim may have “jackknifed around the lap belt causing fatal internal injuries,” reports the Washington Post. Now, the SCOTUS justices appear evenly divided on whether to allow a lawsuit against Mazda Motor of America, the company that produced the 1993 vehicle in question, for not installing seat belts with shoulder straps.
Mazda says it is not liable for the death because in 1989, the federal government gave car manufacturers the right to choose between lap-only belts and “Type 2” seat belts, which are safer and include the shoulder strap. But assistant to the solicitor general William Jay says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “wasn’t making a pre-emptive judgment that Type 2 seat belts, therefore, should not be installed. And for that reason there is no frustration of anything that NHTSA had in mind in the 1989 rulemaking by allowing this tort suit to proceed.”
Close to this issue is a 2000 SCOTUS ruling that halted a lawsuit against Honda Motor Company about a 1987 vehicle not equipped with air bags. Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote that decision, implied this week that the prior case was different, and that this court should come to a different resolution. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s statements indicated his opposition to the lawsuit. “You are saying that once the government gives the manufacturer a choice, then the jury, the tort system, can second guess it,” he said. “And that is not consistent with a likely government intent to allow the manufacturers a choice based on the technical advances to that date.”
Newly confirmed Justice Elena Kagen has said she will not participate in this issue, since she worked on it as Solicitor General, which would constitute a conflict of interest. That means, of course, that the 8 remaining justices could split 4-4 on the issue, which would effectively uphold the decision of lower courts, which ruled against the family of the deceased.
On first glance, it appears that this issue will not have a major impact on current auto safety, since the accident has past and vehicles are now fully equipped with shoulder seat belts. But it will have an impact on how auto companies weigh government safety options against cost saving measures. If the SCOTUS allows the lawsuit to proceed, then companies like Mazda might decide to save lives rather than cents when safety issues arise.
Photo credit: L. Marie