529 U.S. 861 (2000), 98-1811, Geier v. American Honda Motor Co.

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-1811
Citation:529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, 68 U.S.L.W. 4425
Party Name:GEIER et al. v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., et al.
Case Date:May 22, 2000
Court:United States Supreme Court

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529 U.S. 861 (2000)

120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, 68 U.S.L.W. 4425

GEIER et al.



Case No. 98-1811

United States Supreme Court

May 22, 2000

Argued December 7, 1999



Pursuant to its authority under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the Department of Transportation (DOT) promulgated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208, which required auto manufacturers to equip some but not all of their 1987 vehicles with passive restraints. Petitioner Alexis Geier was injured in an accident while driving a 1987 Honda Accord tat did not have such restraints. She and her parents, also petitioners, sought damages under District of Columbia tort law, claiming, inter alia, that respondents (hereinafter American Honda) were negligent in not equipping the Accord with a driver's side airbag. Ruling that their claims were expressly pre-empted by the Act, the District Court granted American Honda summary judgment. In affirming, the Court of Appeals concluded that, because petitioners' state tort claims posed an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives of FMVSS 208, those claims conflicted with that standard and that, under ordinary pre-emption principles, the Act consequently pre-empted the lawsuit.


Petitioners' "no airbag" lawsuit conflicts with the objectives of FMVSS 208 and is therefore pre-empted by the Act. Pp. 867-886.

(a) The Act's pre-emption provision, 15 U.S.C. § 1392(d), does not expressly pre-empt this lawsuit. The presence of a saving clause, which says that "[c]ompliance with" a federal safety standard "does not exempt any person from any liability under common law," § 1397(k), requires that the pre-emption provision be read narrowly to pre-empt only state statutes and regulations. The saving clause assumes that there are a significant number of common-law liability cases to save. And reading the express pre-emption provision to exclude common-law tort actions gives actual meaning to the saving clause's literal language, while leaving adequate room for state tort law to operate where, for example, federal law creates only a minimum safety standard. Pp. 867-868.

(b) However, the saving clause does not bar the ordinary working of conflict pre-emption principles. Nothing in that clause suggests an intent to save state tort actions that conflict with federal regulations. The words "[c]ompliance" and "does not exempt" sound as if they simply

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bar a defense that compliance with a federal standard automatically exempts a defendant from state law, whether the Federal Government meant that standard to be an absolute, or a minimum, requirement. This interpretation does not conflict with the purpose of the saving provision, for it preserves actions that seek to establish greater safety than the minimum safety achieved by a federal regulation intended to provide a floor. Moreover, this Court has repeatedly declined to give broad effect to saving clauses where doing so would upset the careful regulatory scheme established by federal law, a concern applicable here. The pre-emption provision and the saving provision, read together, reflect a neutral policy, not a specially favorable or unfavorable one, toward the application of ordinary conflict pre-emption. The preemption provision itself favors pre-emption of state tort suits, while the saving clause disfavors pre-emption at least some of the time. However, there is nothing in any natural reading of the two provisions that would favor one policy over the other where a jury-imposed safety standard actually conflicts with a federal safety standard. Pp. 869-874.

(c) This lawsuit actually conflicts with FMVSS 208 and the Act itself. DOT saw FMVSS 208 not as a minimum standard, but as a way to provide a manufacturer with a range of choices among different passive restraint systems that would be gradually introduced, thereby lowering costs, overcoming technical safety problems, encouraging technological development, and winning widespread consumer acceptance—all of which would promote FMVSS 208's safety objectives. The standard's history helps explain why and how DOT sought these objectives. DOT began instituting passive restraint requirements in 1970, but it always permitted passive restraint options. Public resistance to an ignition interlock device that in effect forced occupants to buckle up their manual belts influenced DOT's subsequent initiatives. The 1984 version of FMVSS 208 reflected several significant considerations regarding the effectiveness of manual seatbelts and the likelihood that passengers would leave their manual seatbelts unbuckled, the advantages and disadvantages of passive restraints, and the public's resistance to the installation or use of then-available passive restraint devices. Most importantly, it deliberately sought variety, rejecting an "all airbag" standard because perceived or real safety concerns threatened a backlash more easily overcome with a mix of several different devices. A mix would also help develop data on comparative effectiveness, allow the industry time to overcome safety problems and high production costs associated with airbags, and facilitate the development of alternative, cheaper, and safer passive restraint systems, thereby building public confidence necessary to avoid an interlock-type fiasco. The 1984 standard also deliberately sought to gradually phase in passive

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restraints, starting with a 10% requirement in 1987 vehicles. The requirement was also conditional and would stay in effect only if two- thirds of the States did not adopt mandatory buckle-up laws. A rule of state tort law imposing a duty to install airbags in cars such as petitioners' would have presented an obstacle to the variety and mix of devices that the federal regulation sought and to the phase-in that the federal regulation deliberately imposed. It would also have made adoption of state mandatory seatbelt laws less likely. This Court's pre-emption cases assume compliance with the state law duty in question, and do not turn on such compliance-related considerations as whether a private party would ignore state legal obligations or how likely it is that state law actually would be enforced. Finally, some weight is placed upon DOT's interpretation of FMVSS 208's objectives and its conclusion that a tort suit such as this one would stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of those objectives. DOT is likely to have a thorough understanding of its own regulation and its objectives and is uniquely qualified to comprehend the likely impact of state requirements. Because there is no reason to suspect that the Solicitor General's representation of these views reflects anything other than the agency's fair and considered judgment on the matter, DOT's failure in promulgating FMVSS 208 to address pre-emption explicitly is not determinative. Nor do the agency's views, as presented here, lack coherence. Pp. 874-886.

166 F.3d 1236, affirmed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 886.

Arthur H. Bryant argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Leslie A. Brueckner and Robert M. N. Palmer.

Malcolm E. Wheeler argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Benjamin S. Boyd, Mark A. Brooks, and Brad J. Safon.

Deputy Solicitor General Wallace argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Ogden, Matthew D. Roberts,

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Douglas N. Letter, Kathleen Moriarty Mueller, Nancy E. McFadden, Paul M. Geier, and Frank Seales, Jr. [* ]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case focuses on the 1984 version of a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard promulgated by the Department of Transportation under the authority of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, 80 Stat. 718, 15 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (1988 ed.). The standard, FMVSS 208, required auto manufacturers to equip some but not all of their

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1987 vehicles with passive restraints. We ask whether the Act pre-empts a state common-law tort action in which the plaintiff claims that the defendant auto manufacturer, who was in compliance with the standard, should nonetheless have equipped a 1987 automobile with airbags. We conclude that the Act, taken together with FMVSS 208, pre-empts the lawsuit.


In 1992, petitioner Alexis Geier, driving a 1987 Honda Accord, collided with a tree and was seriously injured. The car was equipped with manual shoulder and lap belts which Geier had buckled up at the time. The car was not equipped with airbags or other passive restraint devices.

Geier and her parents, also petitioners, sued the car's manufacturer, American Honda Motor Company, Inc., and its affiliates (hereinafter American Honda), under District of Columbia tort law. They claimed, among other things, that American Honda had designed its car negligently and defectively because it lacked a driver's side airbag. App. 3. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit. The court noted that FMVSS 208 gave car manufacturers a choice as to whether to install airbags. And the court concluded that petitioners' lawsuit, because it sought to establish a different safety standard— i. e., an airbag requirement—was expressly preempted by a provision of the Act which pre-empts "any safety standard" that is not identical to a federal safety standard applicable to the same aspect of performance, 15 U.S.C. § 1392(d) (1988 ed.); Civ. No. 95-CV-0064 (D. D. C., Dec. 9, 1997), App. 17...

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