514 U.S. 280 (1995), 94-286, Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick

Docket Nº:No. 94-286
Citation:514 U.S. 280, 115 S.Ct. 1483, 131 L.Ed.2d 385, 63 U.S.L.W. 4263
Party Name:FREIGHTLINER CORP. et al. v. MYRICK et al.
Case Date:April 18, 1995
Court:United States Supreme Court

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514 U.S. 280 (1995)

115 S.Ct. 1483, 131 L.Ed.2d 385, 63 U.S.L.W. 4263



MYRICK et al.

No. 94-286

United States Supreme Court

April 18, 1995

Argued February 22, 1995



In separate state common-law suits, respondents alleged that the absence of an antilock braking system (ABS) in tractor-trailers manufactured by petitioners constituted a negligent design defect that caused accidents injuring one respondent and killing another's spouse. The District Court granted summary judgments for petitioners, holding that respondents' claims were pre-empted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Act) and by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Standard 121, even though the applicable portion of that standard had previously been suspended by the Ninth Circuit. Among other things, the Act forbids any State to "establish, or continue in effect," a motor vehicle safety standard "[w]henever a Federal . . . standard . . . is in effect" with respect to "the same aspect of performance," 15 U.S.C. § 1392(d), while Standard 121 imposed vehicle stability requirements and truck stopping distances shorter than those that could be achieved with brakes lacking ABS. The Eleventh Circuit consolidated the cases and reversed, holding that respondents' claims were not expressly pre-empted under Circuit precedent and were not impliedly pre-empted due to a conflict between state law and the federal regulatory scheme.


1. Respondents' lawsuits are not expressly pre-empted. Because of Standard 121's suspension, there is simply no "minimum," § 1391(2), "objective," § 1392(a), federal standard addressing stopping distances or vehicle stability for trucks. States thus remain free to "establish, or continue in effect," their own safety standards concerning those "aspects of performance." § 1392(d). Moreover, the absence of regulation cannot itself constitute regulation in this instance. The lack of a federal standard did not result from an affirmative decision of officials to refrain from regulating brakes, but from the decision of a federal court that the Government had not compiled sufficient evidence to justify its regulations. Ray v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 435 U.S. 151, 178, distinguished. Pp. 286-287.

2. Because respondents' common-law actions do not conflict with federal law, they cannot be pre-empted by implication. This Court has found implied conflict pre-emption where it is "impossible for a private

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party to comply with both state and federal requirements," English v. General Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72, 79, or where state law "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of [Congress'] full purposes and objectives," Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 518, distinguished. First, it is not impossible for petitioners to comply with both federal and state law because there is simply no federal standard for a private party to comply with. Nothing in the Act or its regulations currently regulates the use of ABS devices. Second, a finding of liability against petitioners would undermine no federal objectives or purposes with respect to such devices, since none exist absent a promulgated federal standard. Pp. 287-290.

13 F.3d 1516, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist,C. J., and Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., concurred in the judgment.

Charles Fried argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Richard G. Taranto, Edgar A. Neely III, Richard B. North, Jr., James A. Jacobson, and Cindy F. Wile.

Paul R. Q. Wolfson argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae in support of respondents. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Douglas N. Letter, Paul D. Scott, Paul M. Geier, and Phillip R. Recht.

Michael H. Gottesman argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Arthur H. Bryant, Leslie A. Brueckner, Robert M. Weinberg, Andrew D. Roth, James E. Carter, Raymond Brooks, and Charles A. Mathis, Jr. [*]

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Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

By statute, the Secretary of Transportation has the authority to issue appropriate safety standards for motor vehicles and their equipment. Respondents filed lawsuits under state common law alleging negligent design defects in equipment manufactured by petitioners. Petitioners claim that these actions are pre-empted by a federal safety standard, even though the standard was suspended by a federal court. We hold that the absence of a federal standard cannot implicitly extinguish state common law.


This case arises from two separate but essentially identical accidents in Georgia involving tractor-trailers. In both cases, 18-wheel tractor-trailers attempted to brake suddenly and ended up jackknifing into oncoming traffic. Neither vehicle was equipped with an antilock braking system (ABS).[1] In the first case, respondent Ben Myrick was the driver of an oncoming vehicle that was hit by a tractor-trailer manufactured by petitioner Freightliner. The accident left him permanently paraplegic and brain damaged. In the second case, the driver of an oncoming car, Grace Lindsey, was killed when her vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer manufactured by petitioner Navistar.

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Respondents independently sued the manufacturers of the tractor-trailers under state tort law. They alleged that the absence of ABS was a negligent design that rendered the vehicles defective. Petitioners removed the actions to the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on the basis of diversity of citizenship. They then sought summary judgment on the ground that respondents' claims were pre-empted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Safety Act or Act), Pub. L. 89-563, 80 Stat. 718, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., and its implementing regulations. In respondent Myrick's case, the District Court held that the claims were pre-empted by federal law and granted summary judgment for petitioner Freightliner. Myrick v. Fruehauf Corp., 795 F.Supp. 1139 (ND Ga.1992). Following the opinion in the Myrick case, the District Court granted summary judgment in the Lindsey action in favor of petitioner Navistar.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit consolidated the cases and reversed. Myrick v. Freuhauf Corp., 13 F.3d 1516 (1994). It held that under its previous decision in Taylor v. General Motors Corp., 875 F.2d 816 (CA111989), cert. denied, 494 U.S. 1065 (1990), the state-law tort claims were not expressly pre-empted. The Court of Appeals rejected petitioners' alternative argument that the claims were pre-empted due to a conflict between state law and the federal regulatory scheme. We granted certiorari, 513 U.S. 922 (1994). We now affirm.


In 1966, Congress enacted the Safety Act "to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents." 15 U.S.C. § 1381. The Act requires the Secretary of Transportation to establish "appropriate Federal motor vehicle safety standards." § 1392(a). The Act defines a safety standard as "a minimum standard for

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motor vehicle performance, or motor vehicle equipment performance, which is practicable, which meets the need for motor vehicle safety and which provides objective criteria." § 1391(2).

The Safety Act's express pre-emption clause provides:

"Whenever a Federal motor vehicle safety standard established under this subchapter is in effect, no State or political subdivision of a State shall have any authority either to establish, or to continue in effect, with respect to any motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment any safety standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of such vehicle or item of equipment which is not identical to the Federal standard. Nothing in this section shall be construed as preventing any State from enforcing any safety standard which is identical to a Federal safety standard." § 1392(d).

The Act also contains a saving clause, which states: "Compliance with any Federal motor vehicle safety standard issued under this subchapter does not exempt any person from any liability under common law." § 1397(k).

The Secretary has delegated the authority to promulgate safety standards to the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 49 CFR § 1.50(a) (1994). In 1970, the...

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