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Implied conflict preemption can arise in two situations: when it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements or where state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress. A state law will be preempted under the latter form of implied conflict preemption only where it would frustrate a significant objective of the federal regulation.
On April 23, 1994, a bus carrying approximately 21 passengers was returning from a visit to Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook, New York. The bus was equipped with a seatbelt for the driver, but not for the passengers. During the trip along the New York State Thruway, the driver, defendant Wagner M. Alcivar, "dozed off" while the bus was traveling approximately 60 miles per hour. The bus veered across the highway from the right-hand lane into the passing lane, and encountered a median strip and a sloping embankment. Alcivar awakened, but his belated attempts to regain control of the bus were futile as the vehicle rolled over several times, injuring many of the passengers. Plaintiffs, as individuals and parents commenced actions against defendants Best Transit Corp. (“Best”), the owner of the bus; Ford Motor Company (“Ford”), the manufacturer of the bus; J&R Tours, the prior owner of the bus; and Alcivar, the bus driver. They alleged that the absence of passenger seatbelts and the improper weight distribution of the bus, created by the negligent modification of the bus' chassis, caused the injuries. Prior to trial, the Supreme Court dismissed the claims against J&R Tours; a settlement was reached with Ford; and Alcivar was deported. Following trial, a jury determined that Best and Alcivar were negligent in the operation of the bus, and that Warrick defectively manufactured the bus and breached the warranty of fitness for ordinary purposes by modifying the chassis and altering the weight distribution of the bus. It also determined that Best negligently operated the bus without passenger seatbelts and Warrick breached the warranty of fitness for ordinary purposes by failing to install seatbelts. These failures were deemed substantial factors in causing the accident, and the absence of seatbelts was determined as a substantial factor in causing injury to all plaintiffs.
Are the plaintiffs’ seatbelt claims barred under implied conflict preemption?
The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the bus at issue was over 10,000 pounds, placing it within the ambit of S22.214.171.124 and S126.96.36.199 of FMVSS 208 (see 49 CFR 571.208). S188.8.131.52 states: "First option--complete passenger protection system--driver only. The vehicle shall meet the crash protection requirements of S5, with respect to an anthropomorphic test dummy in the driver's designated seating position, by means that require no action by vehicle occupants" (emphasis added). S184.108.40.206 provides, in relevant part: "Second option--belt system--driver only. The vehicle shall, at the driver's designated seating position, have either a Type 1 or Type 2 seat belt assembly that conforms to § 571.209 of this part and S7.2 of this Standard" (emphasis added). A plain reading of S220.127.116.11 and S18.104.22.168 shows that they only mandate the inclusion of protective devices at the driver's seat of a bus and are absolutely silent regarding the installation of passenger seatbelts. This does not make it impossible to comply with both the federal standards and the gravamen of plaintiffs' seatbelt claims, which seek liability for the failure to install such protective devices. Quite simply, Warrick could have installed passenger and driver seatbelts without running afoul of federal motor vehicle safety standards. Hence, plaintiffs' seatbelt claims are not preempted under the first category of implied conflict preemption.
As per the second category, an examination of the relevant federal regulations confirmed the lack of preemptive intent with respect to passenger seatbelts for buses with a GVWR over 10,000 pounds. The NHTSA has consistently acknowledged the enhanced safety benefits of seatbelts, but it has neither imposed the installation of passenger seatbelts, nor expressed an intention to provide such an option to manufacturers of the type of bus involved in the instant appeal. In 1973, the gravamen of the regulation pertained to the modification of passenger seats because they were a significant factor in causation of injury "[b]y being too weak, too low, and too hostile”. Any discussion of seatbelts did not reflect an intention to provide a discretionary option to manufacturers, but rather, considered its impact on the structure of passenger seats. In 1988 and 1989, the proposed rule-making regulations considered the installation of lap-shoulder belts in "passenger cars, light trucks, multipurpose passenger vehicles (e.g., passenger vans and utility vehicles), and small buses”, but did not consider the inclusion of such protective devices for buses with a GVWR over 10,000 pounds. Again, the NHTSA acknowledged the efficacy of passenger seatbelts in enhancing safety as "a number of studies, evaluating thousands of cases, show that lap belts in the rear seat are effective in preventing deaths and reducing injuries. NHTSA knows of no comprehensive studies by any person or organization that suggests that rear seat lap belts are anything less than effective". But in both 1988 and 1989, buses of the type involved in the instant accident were specifically excluded from consideration. Any "option of installing either lap-only belts or lap/shoulder belts in rear seats" was limited to other forms of vehicles Further, any contention that manufacturers impliedly had an option to install rear passenger seatbelts in buses over 10,000 pounds, because the NHTSA was cognizant of the safety benefits of rear passenger seatbelts, is belied by the plain language of FMVSS 208 and the federal regulations which simply do not consider the inclusion of such protective devices for vehicles of this type. As such, there is simply no preemptive intent to be discerned from the regulations with respect to state common-law claims seeking the inclusion of passenger seatbelts in buses of this type.