Cellucci v. General Motors Corp.

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtBefore ROWLEY; BECK; CIRILLO; DEL SOLE; Before ROWLEY; CIRILLO; Before ROWLEY; DEL SOLE
Citation450 Pa.Super. 438,676 A.2d 253
Decision Date30 April 1996
Parties, 64 USLW 2738, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,616 Daniel CELLUCCI v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION and Joseph V. DeFalco.

Page 253

676 A.2d 253
450 Pa.Super. 438, 64 USLW 2738,
Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,616
Daniel CELLUCCI
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION and Joseph V. DeFalco.
Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued Nov. 2, 1995.
Filed April 30, 1996.

Page 254

[450 Pa.Super. 440] David Heilbron, San Francisco, CA, for appellant.

Larry E. Coben, Scottsdale, AZ, for DeFalco, appellee.

Arthur H. Bryant, Philadelphia, for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, amicus curiae.

Before ROWLEY, President Judge, * and CAVANAUGH, McEWEN, CIRILLO, DEL SOLE, BECK, TAMILIA, JOHNSON and HOFFMAN, JJ.

BECK, Judge.

The issue is whether the instant products liability action against appellant General Motors Corporation ("GM") is preempted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. (the "Safety Act") and the pertinent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards ("Safety Standards") and regulations promulgated thereunder. GM asks that we overrule our decisions in Gingold v. Audi-NSU-Auto Union, A.G., 389 Pa.Super. 328, 567 A.2d 312 (1989) and Heiple v. C.R.

Page 255

Motors, Inc., 446 Pa.Super. 310, 666 A.2d 1066 [450 Pa.Super. 441] (1995), and adopt the reasoning of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Pokorny v. Ford Motor Co., 902 F.2d 1116 (3d Cir.1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 853, 111 S.Ct. 147, 112 L.Ed.2d 113 (1990). 1 We do so, and thereby reverse the trial court's denial of GM's motion for partial summary judgment. 2 Cf. Muntz v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 674 A.2d 328 (1996) (air bag claim not preempted by federal law).

The relevant facts are not in dispute. Appellee Daniel Cellucci was injured when the 1986 Chevrolet Cavalier in which he was a passenger left the road and collided with a tree. The Cavalier was equipped with three-point lap and shoulder harness safety belts, and a dashboard light and buzzer designed to promote seat belt use. Cellucci maintains that he was wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident, but that he nevertheless sustained severe injuries, including permanent brain damage. Cellucci brought this action asserting, inter alia, that GM's vehicle was defectively designed because it lacked passive restraints, specifically, air bags. GM filed a motion for partial summary judgment claiming that [450 Pa.Super. 442] federal law impliedly preempts claims that an automobile is defective because it lacks air bags. The trial judge, although expressing his opinion that Cellucci's action is in fact preempted by federal law, stated that he was bound by this court's decision in Gingold, supra, and therefore denied GM's motion.

In this appeal from the decision on a summary judgment motion, our review is plenary; summary judgment is proper where there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Pa.R.Civ.P. 1035(b). Because the preemption issue raises a question of law in this setting of undisputed facts, the issue was ripe for summary judgment. See Pokorny, supra at 1119. In their briefs to this court, GM and amicus 3 argue that Cellucci's common law action is impliedly preempted by the Safety Act. On the other hand, Cellucci and amici 4 argue that his action remains viable despite the existence of the Safety Standards and the Safety Act.

We first provide an overview of the relevant statutory context. The purpose of the Safety Act was "to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents." 15 U.S.C. § 1381. Undoubtedly, a secondary goal was to promote nationwide uniformity among automobile safety standards. Pokorny, supra at 1122. By 1986, Safety Standard 208 had been promulgated pursuant to the Safety Act and provided automobile manufacturers with three options for occupant restraint systems: 1) a complete passive restraint system for front and lateral crashes; 2) passive restraints for frontal crashes plus lap belts,

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shoulder harnesses and a warning system; or 3) a three-point manual seat belt with a warning system. Gingold, supra at 336-38, 567 A.2d at 317 (citing 49 C.F.R. §§ 571.208 § 4.1.2.1, § 4.1.2.2, and § 4.1.2.3). Although a phase-in requirement for passive restraints (such as airbags) was instituted by Safety Standard [450 Pa.Super. 443] 208, it was not to begin until 1987. Thus, GM was in compliance with Safety Standard 208 when it chose the third option, 3-point manual seat belts with a warning system, as installed in the 1986 Cavalier.

In addition, the Safety Act included the following language which we will refer to as the "preemption clause":

§ 1392. Motor vehicle safety standards.

(d) Supremacy of federal standards; allowable higher standards for vehicles used by Federal or state governments

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. Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the Federal Government or the government of any State or political subdivision thereof from establishing a safety requirement applicable to motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment procured for its own use if such requirement imposes a higher standard of performance than that required to comply with the otherwise applicable Federal standard.

15 U.S.C. § 1392(d) (emphasis added). 5

The Safety Act also includes a "savings clause" in section 1397(k):

[450 Pa.Super. 444] (k) Continuation of common law liability

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. § 1397(k). 6 It is this section to which Cellucci and other opponents of preemption point for support of their argument that "no airbag" claims present valid common law causes of action.

We provide an overview of the relevant decisions courts in this Commonwealth have made on this issue. In Gingold v. Audi-NSU-Auto Union, AG, 389 Pa.Super. 328, 567 A.2d 312 (1989), the plaintiff claimed that the defendant's 1983 Audi was defective because, inter alia, it lacked air bags. The trial court granted a partial summary judgment on the ground that the "no air bag" claim was preempted by the Safety Act. Id. at 330-32, 567 A.2d at 314. A panel of this court reversed, holding that the savings

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clause preserved the common law action against Audi for failure to install air bags. Id. at 333-34, 567 A.2d at 315. The court reasoned that unless the savings clause was interpreted as an "anti-preemption" clause, it would serve no purpose in the Act. Id. at 356-58, 567 A.2d at 327. In making its decision, the court conceded that it was [450 Pa.Super. 445] joining "the ranks of the minority." Id. at 334, 567 A.2d at 315.

In 1990, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided Pokorny v. Ford, supra. Pokorny sued on behalf of her decedent John Duffy, who died when the 1981 Ford van in which he was a passenger crashed. The lawsuit included claims that the Ford was defective because it lacked air bags and window netting that would have prevented Duffy from being partially ejected from a window. 902 F.2d at 1118. Basing its decision primarily on the savings clause, the Third Circuit held that the Safety Act did not expressly preempt the air bag claim. Id. at 1121. However, the court reasoned that there was an actual conflict between the federal Safety Standards providing options to automobile manufacturers and the potential damages awards of common law actions essentially based on the manufacturers' compliance with the federal regulatory framework. The court concluded that the Safety Act therefore impliedly preempted Pokorny's air bag claims. Id. at 1125. The court did allow the window netting claim to proceed as there were no applicable federal Safety Standards regarding window netting, and therefore no conflict. Id. at 1126. The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari on the case. 498 U.S. 853, 111 S.Ct. 147, 112 L.Ed.2d 113 (1990).

Most recently, our court was faced with a "no air bag" claim in Heiple v. C.R. Motors, Inc., 446 Pa.Super. 310, 666 A.2d 1066 (1995), and the panel again decided that the common law action was not preempted by the Safety Act. The plaintiff was injured when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident while operating his 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity. In his lawsuit the plaintiff claimed, inter alia, that the car was defective because General Motors had failed to install an air bag. After considering whether the action was expressly preempted by the Act, the court decided that the language of the preemption clause, § 1392(d), was too narrow and specific to include common law tort actions within its purview. The court was persuaded that the savings clause at § 1397(k) preserved all common law actions such as the plaintiff's. The court reasoned that the savings clause expressly precluded a finding of federal preemption. [450 Pa.Super. 446] On this issue, the court rejected the reasoning of the Third Circuit in Pokorny. In addition, the court rejected an implied preemption analysis.

Speaking generally on the subject of preemption, the United States Supreme Court stated in Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 112 S.Ct. 2608, 120 L.Ed.2d 407 (1992):

Article VI of the Constitution provides that the laws of the United States "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; ... any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding." Art VI, cl. 2. Thus, since our decision in...

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  • Stone Crushed Partnership v. Kajo, No. 16 MAP 2004.
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • October 17, 2006
    ...binding, authority, where that decision interprets federal law." Id. (Cappy, C.J., dissenting). Accord Cellucci v. Gen. Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253, 255 n. 1 (1996), aff'd, 550 Pa. 407, 706 A.2d 806 (1998); City of Philadelphia v. Pa. Pub. Util. Comm'n, 676 A.2d 1298, 1305......
  • Cellucci v. General Motors Corp.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • January 2, 1998
    ...the element of choice [not to install airbags] explicitly provided in Safety Standard 208." Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 450-51, 676 A.2d 253, 260 Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 450-51, 676 A.2d 253, 260 (1996). Moreover, as the Third Circuit ha......
  • Cooper v. General Motors Corp., No. 92-CA-01334-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 8, 1997
    ...that a common law claim for failure to install an air bag is subject to implied federal preemption. Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253 (1996); Drattel v. Toyota Motor Corp., No.7897/93 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. Jan. 4, 1996); Panarites v. Williams, 216 A.D.2d 874, 629 N.Y.......
  • Werner v. Plater-Zyberk
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • February 21, 2002
    ...for this Court to follow Third Circuit precedent in preference to that of other jurisdictions. Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253, 255 n. 1 (1996), aff'd, 550 Pa. 407, 706 A.2d 806 (1998). Whenever possible, Pennsylvania state courts follow the Third Circuit s......
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16 cases
  • Stone Crushed Partnership v. Kajo, No. 16 MAP 2004.
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • October 17, 2006
    ...binding, authority, where that decision interprets federal law." Id. (Cappy, C.J., dissenting). Accord Cellucci v. Gen. Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253, 255 n. 1 (1996), aff'd, 550 Pa. 407, 706 A.2d 806 (1998); City of Philadelphia v. Pa. Pub. Util. Comm'n, 676 A.2d 1298, 1305......
  • Cellucci v. General Motors Corp.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • January 2, 1998
    ...the element of choice [not to install airbags] explicitly provided in Safety Standard 208." Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 450-51, 676 A.2d 253, 260 Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 450-51, 676 A.2d 253, 260 (1996). Moreover, as the Third Circuit ha......
  • Cooper v. General Motors Corp., No. 92-CA-01334-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • December 8, 1997
    ...that a common law claim for failure to install an air bag is subject to implied federal preemption. Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253 (1996); Drattel v. Toyota Motor Corp., No.7897/93 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. Jan. 4, 1996); Panarites v. Williams, 216 A.D.2d 874, 629 N.Y.......
  • Werner v. Plater-Zyberk
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • February 21, 2002
    ...for this Court to follow Third Circuit precedent in preference to that of other jurisdictions. Cellucci v. General Motors Corp., 450 Pa.Super. 438, 676 A.2d 253, 255 n. 1 (1996), aff'd, 550 Pa. 407, 706 A.2d 806 (1998). Whenever possible, Pennsylvania state courts follow the Third Circuit s......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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