562 U.S. 323 (2011), 08-1314, Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc.

Docket Nº08-1314.
Citation562 U.S. 323, 131 S.Ct. 1131, 179 L.Ed.2d 75, 79 U.S.L.W. 4098
Opinion JudgeBREYER, JUSTICE
Party NameDelbert WILLIAMSON, et al., Petitioners, v. MAZDA MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC., et al.
AttorneyMartin N. Buchanan, San Diego, CA, for petitioners. William M. Jay, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioners. Gregory G. Garre, Washington, DC, for respondents. Justice Kagan recused. Martin N. Buchanan, Counsel of Record, Niddrie, Fish & B...
Judge PanelBREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, ALITO, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p.___. Kagan, J., took no part in the con
Case DateFebruary 23, 2011
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 323

562 U.S. 323 (2011)

131 S.Ct. 1131, 179 L.Ed.2d 75, 79 U.S.L.W. 4098

Delbert WILLIAMSON, et al., Petitioners,

v.

MAZDA MOTOR OF AMERICA, INC., et al.

No. 08-1314.

United States Supreme Court

February 23, 2011

Argued Nov. 3, 2010.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION THREE

[179 L.Ed.2d 78] [131 S.Ct. 1132] SYLLABUS [*]

The 1989 version of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (FMVSS 208) requires, as relevant here, auto manufacturers to install seatbelts on the rear seats of passenger vehicles. They must install lap-and-shoulder belts on seats next to a vehicle's doors or frames, but may install either those belts or simple lap belts on rear inner seats, e.g., those next to a minivan's aisle.

The Williamson family and Thanh Williamson's estate brought this California tort suit, claiming that Thanh died in an accident because the rear aisle seat of the Mazda minivan in which she was riding had a lap belt instead of lap-and-shoulder belts. The state trial court dismissed their claim on the pleadings. The State Court of Appeal affirmed, relying on Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, in which this Court found that an earlier (1984) version of FMVSS 208-which required installation of passive restraint devices-pre-empted a state tort suit against an auto manufacturer on a failure to install airbags.

Held:

FMVSS 208 does not pre-empt state tort suits claiming that manufacturers should have installed lap-and-shoulder belts, instead of lap belts, on rear inner seats. Pp. 1135-1140, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 81-86.

(a) Because this case involves (1) the same statute as Geier, (2) a later version of the same regulation, and (3) a somewhat similar claim that a state tort action conflicts with the federal regulation, the answers to two of the subsidiary questions posed in Geier apply directly here. Thus, the statute's express pre-emption clause cannot pre-empt the common-law tort action here; but neither can its saving clause foreclose or limit the operation of ordinary conflict pre-emption principles. The Court consequently turns to Geier 's third subsidiary question, whether, in fact, the state tort action conflicts with the federal regulation. Pp. 1135-1136, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 81-82.

(b) Under ordinary conflict pre-emption principles a state law that "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment" of a federal law is pre-empted. Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 85 L.Ed. 581. In Geier, the state law stood as an obstacle to the accomplishment of a significant federal regulatory objective, [179 L.Ed.2d 79] namely, giving manufacturers a choice among different kinds of passive restraint systems. This conclusion was supported

Page 324

by the regulation's history, the agency's contemporaneous explanation, and the Government's current understanding of the regulation. The history showed that the Department of Transportation (DOT) had long thought it important to leave manufacturers with a choice of systems. DOT's contemporaneous explanation of the regulation made clear that manufacturer choice was an important means for achieving DOT's basic objectives. It phased in passive restraint requirements to give manufacturers time to improve airbag technology and develop better systems; it [131 S.Ct. 1133] worried that requiring airbags would cause a public backlash; and it was concerned about airbag safety and cost. Finally, the Government's current understanding was that a tort suit insisting upon airbag use would " ' "stan[d] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of these objectives." ' " 529 U.S., at 883, 120 S.Ct. 1913. Pp. 1136-1137, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 82-84.

(c) Like the regulation in Geier, the instant regulation leaves the manufacturer with a choice, and the tort suit here would restrict that choice. But in contrast to Geier, the choice here is not a significant regulatory objective. The regulation's history resembles the history of airbags to some degree. DOT rejected a regulation requiring lap-and-shoulder belts in rear seats in 1984. But by 1989, changed circumstances led DOT to require manufacturers to install lap-and-shoulder belts for rear outer seats but to retain a manufacturer choice for rear inner seats. Its reasons for doing so differed considerably from its 1984 reasons for permitting a choice of passive restraint. It was not concerned about consumer acceptance; it thought that lap-and-shoulder belts would increase safety and did not pose additional safety risks; and it was not seeking to use the regulation to spur development of alternative safety devices. Instead, DOT thought that the requirement would not be cost effective. That fact alone cannot show that DOT sought to forbid common-law tort suits. For one thing, DOT did not believe that costs would remain frozen. For another, many federal safety regulations embody a cost-effectiveness judgment. To infer pre-emptive intent from the mere existence of such a cost-effectiveness judgment would eliminate the possibility that the agency seeks only to set forth a minimum standard. Finally, the Solicitor General represents that DOT's regulation does not pre-empt this tort suit. As in Geier, "the agency's own views should make a difference, " 529 U.S., at 883, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914, and DOT has not expressed inconsistent views on this subject. Pp. 1137-1140, 179 L.Ed.2d, at 84-86.

167 Cal.App.4th 905, 84 Cal.Rptr.3d 545, reversed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, ALITO, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed

Page 325

an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p.___. Kagan, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Martin N. Buchanan, San Diego, CA, for petitioners.

William M. Jay, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioners.

Gregory G. Garre, Washington, DC, for respondents.

Justice Kagan recused.

Martin N. Buchanan, Counsel of Record, Niddrie, Fish & Buchanan, San Diego, CA, David J. Bennion, Law Offices of David J. Bennion, San Jose, CA, David R. Lira, Girardi Keese, Los Angeles, CA, Allison M. Zieve, Public Citizen Litigation Group, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Shawn W. Murphy, Charles S. Kim, Irvine, CA, Erika Z. Jones, Dan Himmel-farb, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, Gregory G. Garre, Counsel of Record, Maureen E. Mahoney, J. Scott Ballenger, Jessica E. Phillips, Michael E. Bern, Latham & Watkins LLP, Washington, DC, Mark V. Berry, Bowman and Brooke LLP, Gardena, CA, Malcolm E. Wheeler, Wheeler Trigg O'Donnell, LLP, Denver, CO, for respondents.

OPINION

Page 326

[179 L.Ed.2d 80] [131 S.Ct. 1134] BREYER, JUSTICE

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (1989 version) requires, among other things, that auto manufacturers install seatbelts on the rear seats of passenger vehicles. They must install lap-and-shoulder belts on seats next to a vehicle's doors or frames. But they have a choice about what to install on rear inner seats (say, middle seats or those next to a minivan's aisle). There they can install either (1) simple lap belts or (2) lap-and-shoulder belts. 54 Fed. Reg. 46257-46258 (1989); 49 CFR §571.208 (1993), promulgated pursuant to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Act), 80 Stat. 718, 15 U.S.C. §1381 et seq. (1988 ed.) (recodified without substantive change at 49 U.S.C. §30101 et seq. (2006 ed.)).

The question presented here is whether this federal regulation pre-empts a state tort suit that, if successful, would deny manufacturers a choice of belts for rear inner seats by imposing tort liability upon those who choose to install a simple lap belt. We conclude that providing manufacturers with this seatbelt choice is not a significant objective of the federal regulation. Consequently, the regulation does not pre-empt the state tort suit.

I

In 2002, the Williamson family, riding in their 1993 Mazda minivan, was struck head on by another vehicle. Thanh Williamson was sitting in a rear aisle seat, wearing a lap belt; she died in the accident. Delbert and Alexa Williamson were wearing lap-and-shoulder belts; they survived. They, along with Thanh's estate, subsequently brought this California

Page 327

tort suit against Mazda. They claimed that Mazda should have installed lap-and-shoulder belts on rear aisle seats, and that Thanh died because Mazda equipped her seat with a lap belt instead.

The California trial court dismissed this tort claim on the basis of the pleadings. And the California Court of Appeal affirmed. The appeals court noted that in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914 (2000), this Court considered whether a different portion of (an older version of) Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (FMVSS 208)-a portion that required installation of passive restraint devices-pre-empted a state tort suit that sought to hold an auto manufacturer liable for failure to install a particular kind of passive restraint, namely, airbags. We found that the federal regulation intended to assure manufacturers that they would retain a choice of installing any of several different passive restraint devices. And the regulation sought to assure them that they would not have to exercise this choice in favor of airbags. For that reason we thought that the federal regulation pre-empted a state tort suit that, by premising tort liability on a failure to install airbags, would have deprived the manufacturers of the choice that the federal regulation had assured them. Id., at 874-875, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914.

The court saw considerable similarity between this case and Geier. The federal regulation at issue here gives manufacturers a choice...

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115 practice notes
  • COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard
    • United States
    • Occupational Safety And Health Administration
    • Invalid date
    ...State law preemption where it ``upset the careful regulatory scheme established by federal law''); Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 562 U.S. 323, 330-36 (2011) (affirming the conflict pre-emption principle that ``a state law that stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execut......
  • Preemption as inverse negligence per se.
    • United States
    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 88 Nbr. 3, February - February 2013
    • February 1, 2013
    ...U.S. 470, 494 (1996). (20) See Geier v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861,874 (2000). (21) See Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131, 1139-40 (2011). (22) See Bruesewitz. v. Wyeth LLC, 131 S. Ct. 1068, 1082 (2011). (23) See PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 131 S. Ct. 2567, 2581 (20......
  • The federal common law of statutory interpretation: Erie for the age of statutes.
    • United States
    • William and Mary Law Review Vol. 54 Nbr. 3, February - February 2013
    • February 1, 2013
    ...131 S. Ct. 1968, 1973 (2011); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1748-49 (2011); Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., 131 S. Ct. 1131, 1135-36 (2011). For examples of reliance on severability clauses, see Nat'l Fed'n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2607 (2012) (......
  • Preemption and textualism.
    • United States
    • Michigan Law Review Vol. 112 Nbr. 1, October - October 2013
    • October 1, 2013
    ... See, e.g., Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131, 1136 (2011) ("Under ordinary conflict pre-emption principles a state law that 'stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives' of a federal law is preempted." (quoting Hines v. Davi......
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5 firm's commentaries
  • Autonomous Vehicles: Legal and Regulatory Developments in the United States
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
    • May 17, 2021
    ...See France Plans on Adopting New Rules for Self-Driving Cars, JONES DAY (Apr. 2021). 97 See 49 U.S.C. § 30103.98 529 U.S. 861 (2000).99 562 U.S. 323 (2011). 100 See H.R. 8350, 116th Cong. (2020) (emphasis added). 101 See id.102 See 49 U.S.C. §§ 20106(b)(1)(A), (B); Ryder v. Union Pac. R.R. ......
  • That Theory Won’t Hunt
    • United States
    • LexBlog United States
    • March 27, 2014
    ...state-law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the [statute’s] objectives”); Williamson v. Mazda Motor, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131, 1136 (2011) (“neither can the statute’s saving clause foreclose or limit the operation of ordinary conflict pre-emption principles”). Due to the......
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    • JD Supra United States
    • August 3, 2017
    ...to give manufacturers a choice about passive restraint technology. A decade later, however, the Court in Williamson v. Mazda Motor Co., 562 U.S. 323 (2011), held unanimously that a federal standard relating to seatbelts did not preempt state tort suits claiming that the manufacturer should ......
  • Product Liability Update - April 2011
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
    • April 26, 2011
    ...Manufacturer Choice of Safety Restraints Was Not Significant Federal Regulatory Objective In Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131 (Feb. 23, 2011), decedent was killed in an automobile accident while wearing a lap belt in the rear aisle seat of a minivan. Decedent’s fa......
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15 books & journal articles
  • Saving preemption in the Clean Air Act: climate change, state common law, and plaintiffs without a remedy.
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Vol. 43 Nbr. 3, June - June 2013
    • June 22, 2013
    ...in the Roberts Court, 2011 SUP. CT. REV. 253 (2012). (205) Id. at 256. (206) Id. at 305. (207) Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131 (2011); PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing, 131 S. Ct. 2567 (2011); Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, LLC, 131 S. Ct. 1068 (2011); AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepci......
  • 86 CBJ 28. TORT DEVELOPMENTS IN 2011.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Journal Nbr. 2012, January 2012
    • January 1, 2012
    ...As always, Congress and the FDA retain the authority to change the law and regulations if they so desire." Id. at 2582. 131 S.Ct. 1131, 1133-34 (2011). Id. Id. Id. at 1133-34. Id. Id. The Court distinguished the case before it from Grier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 ......
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    • United States
    • Yale Law Journal Vol. 123 Nbr. 6, April - April 2014
    • April 1, 2014
    ...131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011); Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. v. Whiting, 131 S. Ct. 1968 (2011); Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 131 S. Ct. 1131 (2011); Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 131 S. Ct. 1068 (2011). One additional case, Astrue v. Caputo ex rel. B.N.C., 132 S. Ct. 2021 (2012), invoked ......
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    • October 1, 2017
    ...in part and dissenting in part)). (148.) See Meltzer, supra note 130, at 10-14. (149.) See, e.g., Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 562 U.S. 323, 336 (2011) (considering Congress's and the Department of Transportation's purpose underlying the regulation at issue and determining that t......
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2 provisions
  • COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard
    • United States
    • Occupational Safety And Health Administration
    • Invalid date
    ...State law preemption where it ``upset the careful regulatory scheme established by federal law''); Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 562 U.S. 323, 330-36 (2011) (affirming the conflict pre-emption principle that ``a state law that stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execut......
  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards:
    • United States
    • Federal Register March 22, 2011
    • March 22, 2011
    ...511 (6th Cir. 2008); Morales v. American Honda Motor Co., 151 F.3d 500 (6th Cir. 1998); see also Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, 131 S.Ct. 1131 (2011); Fabian v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 628 F.3d. 278 (6th Cir. 2010); Sours v. General Motors Corp., 717 F.2d 1511, 1517 (6th Cir. 1983); Re......

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