Lap Belt Lawsuit Okayed By Supreme Court

The family of a woman who was killed during a head on collision, while riding in a 1993 Mazda MPV, has been given a green light to file a suit against the  vehicle manufacturer, blaming it as partly responsible for her death.

Thann Williamson, was riding in the back of the MPV in 2002 when it was struck by another vehicle. Ms Williamson, the only occupant in the vehicle wearing a lap belt, was killed as a result of the crash, the other passengers, wearing three-point shoulder belts, survived.

The Williamson family claims that if Thann had been wearing a shoulder belt like the rest of the occupants, she would be alive today and believes that Mazda put cost considerations before safety. At the time the MPV was built, shoulder belts for the center rear seat rider were not mandatory in the US and the Hiroshima based company maintains that it was perfectly within Federal safety requirements of the time.

California Courts dismissed the Williamson case, relying on evidence from a 2000 decision, where American Honda was the target in a case involving the option of installing airbags in relation to automobile injuries.

The ruling in that particular case said that injury suits brought under state law challenging the failure to install air bags stood as an obstacle to the objectives of federal safety regulations, which were said to be the maintenance of manufacturers’ choices.

Both cases were authored by Justice Stephen G. Breyer and although he argued both were similar in scope, airbag regulations enacted by the Feds foreclosed the filing of injury suits, whereas in the case of seat belts, regulators had a mandate to pursue a standard restraint system for all seats, convinced that shoulder belts would result in increased safety. As a result, the Government urged the Supreme Court to bar the 2000 hearing of Geiger versus Honda, but allowed  the Williamson case to proceed.

It will be interesting to see if similar suits regarding injuries or fatalities result from accidents involving older vehicles will be brought to trial in the same fashion.

[Source: The New York Times]