865 F.2d 395 (1st Cir. 1988), 87-1750, Wood v. General Motors Corp.

Docket Nº:87-1750.
Citation:865 F.2d 395
Party Name:Patricia M. WOOD, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellant.
Case Date:December 28, 1988
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Page 395

865 F.2d 395 (1st Cir. 1988)

Patricia M. WOOD, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellees,



No. 87-1750.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 28, 1988

Heard Dec. 9, 1987.

David M. Heilbron with whom Leslie G. Landau, McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, San Francisco, Cal., Patrick F. McCartan, Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen J. Brogan, Marc L. Swartzbaugh, Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, Cleveland, Ohio, John P. Raleigh, Nicholas J. Wittner, Detroit, Mich., Richard P. Campbell, John A.K. Grunert, and Campbell and Associates, P.C., Boston, Mass., were on brief for defendant, appellant.

Paul M. Bator, Stephen M. Shapiro, Chicago, Ill., Kenneth S. Geller, Kathryn A.

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Oberly, Mayer, Brown & Platt, Washington, D.C., William H. Crabtree, and Edward P. Good, Detroit, Mich., on brief for the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., the Auto. Importers of America, Inc., and the Motor Vehicle Mfrgs. Ass'n of the U.S., Inc., amici curiae.

Edmund P. Daley with whom Moquin & Daley, Manchester, N.H., and Arthur H. Bryant, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Washington, D.C., were on brief for plaintiffs, appellees.

Larry E. Coben, Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, Philadelphia, Pa., and Eugene Pavalon, on brief for Ass'n of Trial Lawyers of America, amicus curiae.

Joshua R. Kratka, Somerville, Mass., on brief for Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, amicus curiae.

Before CAMPBELL, Chief Judge, SELYA, Circuit Judge, and LAFFITTE, [*] District Judge.


The question before us is whether federal safety regulations preempt a state law claim, asserted in a federal diversity action, that a motor vehicle was defective because it lacked air bags.

This is an interlocutory appeal in a product liability diversity action brought in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts by plaintiff-appellee Patricia Wood against defendant-appellant General Motors Corporation. Wood has alleged that under Massachusetts law a vehicle manufactured by General Motors was defective because it was equipped with seat belts rather than air bags or some other type of "passive restraint." General Motors moved for summary judgment on the ground that Wood's state claim is preempted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. Secs. 1381 et seq. (1982), and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards promulgated under the Act. The district court denied the motion, Wood v. General Motors Corp., 673 F.Supp. 1108 (D.Mass.1987), and we have agreed to hear, in part, General Motors' interlocutory appeal from the court's action. 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1292(b) (1982).


A. Facts and Procedural History

On May 19, 1981, appellee Patricia Wood was on her way home from school, riding in the front passenger seat of a 1976 Chevrolet Blazer. The Blazer, manufactured by appellant General Motors, was equipped with seat belts and complied with all applicable federal motor vehicle safety regulations. Wood was not, however, wearing her seat belt. For some reason other than a defect in the vehicle, the Blazer left the road and collided with a tree. Suffering severe injuries, Wood was rendered quadriplegic.

In May 1984, Wood brought an action for damages in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, claiming that General Motors was liable for her injuries under Massachusetts state law theories of negligent design, negligent manufacture, and breach of implied and express warranty. One paragraph of the complaint alleged that

Defendant negligently failed to provide reasonably safe and adequate safety devices, which include but are not limited to "air bag" devices, to protect passengers and minimize the seriousness of injuries in reasonably foreseeable circumstances which include collisions[.]

General Motors moved for summary judgment on all claims. It characterized Wood's complaint as being wholly dependent on the theory that the Blazer lacked passive restraints (i.e., safety devices that do not require any action by the passenger, e.g., air bags or automatic seat belts), and was therefore defectively designed. Such a theory, General Motors argued, was both preempted by federal safety regulations and invalid under the Massachusetts law of product liability. After briefing and argument, the district court denied General Motors's motion for summary judgment.

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General Motors then moved for immediate interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1292(b). The district court found that its denial of the motion for summary judgment met the statutory requirements, and authorized an immediate appeal. We granted in part General Motors's petition for immediate appeal, limiting our review to

the question whether federal law preempts a state law product liability claim against a motor vehicle manufacturer based on its installing seat belts, rather than airbags, in a motor vehicle. 1

B. The Safety Act

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (the "Safety Act" or "Act") was enacted by Congress in response to the "soaring rate of death and debilitation on the Nation's highways," S.Rep. No. 1301, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 1, reprinted in 1966 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 2709, 2709 [hereinafter "Senate Report"]. The Safety Act sought to increase automotive safety by authorizing the promulgation of federal "motor vehicle safety standards," hereinafter referred to as "FMVSS." 15 U.S.C. Secs. 1391(2), 1392(a) (1982). The FMVSS, to be written and administered by the Secretary of Transportation, 2 were to be mandatory standards which would apply to all new motor vehicles. The delegation was broad; the new law stated only that each FMVSS "be practicable, shall meet the need for motor vehicle safety, and shall be stated in objective terms." 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1392(a).

Congress envisioned that the FMVSS would be addressed to two types of dangers: 1) vehicle defects which caused accidents, and 2) vehicle defects that aggravated injuries to the occupants once an accident had occurred. The latter problem, sometimes labeled "crashworthiness," received special attention from Congress. Senate Report, 1966 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News at 2712. Within the field of crashworthiness, Congress focused especially on the problem of the "second collision"--the potentially devastating impact between the vehicle's occupants and the vehicle's interior. 3 The Senate Committee noted that the " 'second collision' ... has been largely neglected," and that "[r]ecessed dashboard instruments and the use of seat belts can mean the difference between a bruised forehead and a fractured skull." Id. at 2710-11. This appeal concerns FMVSS 208, which is the most important FMVSS addressed to the problem of the second collision.

When framing the Safety Act, Congress indicated clearly its intention that the primary responsibility for setting standards regulating the national automobile manufacturing industry rested upon the federal government, not the states. The Senate Report stated,

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While the contribution of the several States to automobile safety has been significant, and justifies to the States a consultative role in the setting of standards, the primary responsibility for regulating the national automotive manufacturing industry must fall squarely upon the Federal Government.

Id. at 2712 (emphasis added). The limited, consultative role of the states is reflected in two provisions of the Safety Act. First, 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1392(f) states that in prescribing FMVSS, the Secretary "shall ... consult with the Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission, and such other State or interstate agencies (including legislative committees) as he deems appropriate...." Second, the Safety Act contains a preemption provision which explicitly preempts any state safety standard--even state standards which are more stringent than the federal standards--which covers "the same aspect of performance" as a federal standard but which is "not identical" to the federal standard. 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1392(d).

With respect to safety standards implied under state tort law, however, the Safety Act's allocation of exclusive federal authority to establish automotive safety standards is less clear. Notwithstanding the above preemption provision, the Safety Act also contains section 1397, with the following general "savings clause":

Compliance with any Federal motor vehicle safety standard issued under this subchapter does not exempt any person from any liability under common law.

15 U.S.C. Sec. 1397(c). The Safety Act is thus ambiguous as to the current issue, to wit, whether a state product liability claim alleging improper design--which seeks to hold an automotive manufacturer liable for failing to adopt a standard "not identical" to a federal safety standard covering the "same aspect of performance"--is preserved by section 1397(c) and not preempted by section 1392(d), as would be the case were a Massachusetts law or regulation to have required adoption of the very same standard (i.e., provision of an air bag).

C. FMVSS 208

FMVSS 208, entitled "Occupant crash protection," has an intricate and contentious history of over 20 years. See generally State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Department of Transportation, 680 F.2d 206, 209-18 (D.C.Cir.1982) (hereinafter "State Farm I "), vacated and remanded sub nom. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 463 U.S. 29, 34-38, 103 S.Ct. 2856, 2862-2864, 77 L.Ed.2d 443 (1973) (hereinafter "State Farm II "); State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Dole, 802 F.2d 474, 477-78 (D.C.Cir.1986), cert. denied, 480 U.S. 951, 107 S.Ct. 1616, 94 L.Ed.2d 800 (1987)...

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