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Regarding whether the express preemption provision of former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1392 preempts a state tort suit, that statutory clause says that no state may establish, or continue in effect, any safety standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or item of equipment which is not identical to the federal standard. Former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1392(d). A word somewhat similar to "standard," namely, "requirements," includes within its scope state common-law duties, such as duties created by state tort law. But a state tort suit falls outside the scope of this particular preemption clause. That is primarily because the statute also contains a saving clause, which says that compliance with a federal safety standard does not exempt any person from any liability under common law. Former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1397(k). Since tort law is ordinarily "common law," the presence of the saving clause makes clear that Congress intended state tort suits to fall outside the scope of the express preemption clause.
Thanh Williamson was riding in a rear aisle seat of a Mazda minivan and was wearing a lap seatbelt when the vehicle was involved in an accident. Petitioners, the Williamson family and Thanh Williamson’s estate, brought the present California tort suit, alleging that Thanh died because the manufacturer equipped the van's rear aisle seats with lap belts instead of lap-and-shoulder belts. The state courts found that the state tort claim was preempted by 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (1993), promulgated under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1381 et seq. (recodified at 49 U.S.C.S. § 30101 et seq.). Section 571.208 allowed manufacturers to install either lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts on a vehicle's rear inner seats. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Was the petitioners’ state tort claim preempted by the former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1392(d)?
The Supreme Court held that the express preemption clause under former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1392(d) did not preempt a common-law tort action given the savings clause under former 15 U.S.C.S. § 1397(k). According to the Court, although the former § 1397(k) did not limit the operation of conflict preemption principles, petitioners' tort claim was not preempted because giving manufacturers a choice between the restraint types was not a significant regulatory objective. An agency cost-effectiveness judgment was not sufficient by itself to establish preemptive intent. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the state courts.