Miranda v Navistar, Inc., 011222 FED5, 21-40421

Docket Nº21-40421
Opinion JudgeW. Eugene Davis, Circuit Judge.
Party NameEstate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr.; Maria Fuentes, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr.; Gabriel Miranda, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Navistar, Incorporated; Navistar International Corporation; IC Bus L.L.C.; IC Bus of Oklahoma L.L.C., ...
Judge PanelBefore Davis, Higginson, and Engelhardt, Circuit Judges.
Case DateJanuary 12, 2022
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

Estate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr.; Maria Fuentes, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr.; Gabriel Miranda, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Gabriel Miranda, Jr., Plaintiffs-Appellants,


Navistar, Incorporated; Navistar International Corporation; IC Bus L.L.C.; IC Bus of Oklahoma L.L.C., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 21-40421

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 12, 2022

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas USDC No. 7:18-CV-00353

Before Davis, Higginson, and Engelhardt, Circuit Judges.

W. Eugene Davis, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs-appellants, the estate and surviving parents of thirteen-year-old Gabriel Miranda, Jr. ("Gabriel"), brought this products liability action against defendants-appellees, Navistar, Inc., Navistar International Corp., IC Bus LLC, and IC Bus of Oklahoma L.L.C. (collectively "Navistar"), for the wrongful death of their son. Tragically, Gabriel fell to his death after opening


the rear emergency exit of a school bus while it was travelling at highway speed. Plaintiffs argue that defendants are liable under Texas law for their failure to include a safety device on the emergency exit in the form of an electronic locking mechanism that would prevent a person from opening the exit when the bus is moving at highway speed.

We conclude that the district court correctly dismissed this suit on the ground that a federal regulation promulgated by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"), Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 217 ("FMVSS 217"), conflicts with and therefore preempts a state common law duty to include such an automatic lock. We agree with the district court's reading of FMVSS 217 that a school bus manufacturer must outfit school buses with rear emergency exits that can be opened in only one way: by operating a manual release mechanism. Thus, it would be impossible to comply with the regulation while implementing the change argued for by plaintiffs. Accordingly, we AFFIRM.

I. Background

This is a sad case. On November 14, 2016, Gabriel and other members of his eighth-grade class boarded a school bus for a field trip to the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas. While travelling on Interstate 69, Gabriel opened the rear emergency exit and fell to the pavement below.1 He suffered severe trauma to his head and was pronounced dead later that morning.

The school bus, a 2010 CE-Series, was designed, manufactured, and distributed by Navistar. The rear emergency exit of the school bus is


equipped with a release mechanism that allows the door to latch and unlatch, as shown below:

(Image Omitted)

To open the emergency exit, a person must unlatch the door by pulling the red lever upward, and then push against the door.

The rear emergency exit also has a separate "vandal lock," shown below:

(Image Omitted)

The vandal lock is intended to prevent unauthorized access while the bus is not in use. It is a simple barrel bolt latch consisting of a steel bolt inside a sheath that is connected to the door frame. To engage the lock, the bolt slides into a steel ring that is connected to the door itself. When the lock is engaged, the engine starting system will not operate. Additionally, if the lock is engaged while the bus's ignition switch is in the "ON" position, an audible alarm sounds at the rear exit and near the driver.


Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit in the district court on November 13, 2018. They alleged strict liability claims under Texas law on the ground that Navistar failed to equip the rear emergency exit with an adequate locking system.2 Relying on the opinion of an expert witness, Rob Berriman, an automotive electronics engineer, plaintiffs contend that Navistar should have included an automatic in-motion lock on its school buses that would prevent a person from opening the rear exit when a bus is travelling at highway speed.

In his report, Berriman outlines three possible designs for a locking system that would engage at a set speed (as argued by plaintiffs, at 30 miles per hour).3 The simplest version, for which patents have existed since 1972, would take a real-time speed signal from the bus to trigger a lock mechanism. A more modern version of this design would use a speed signal to electronically trigger an electromagnetic lock or pneumatic bolt. Finally, Berriman proposes a "smart door" that uses accelerometers, inclinators, gyroscope, and GPS to unlock the door only under "safe speed conditions."

Navistar moved for summary judgment, contending that federal law preempts plaintiffs' state law claims. The district court granted the motion. Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), and the district court denied the motion. Plaintiffs timely appealed.


II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

"We review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the district court."4 Summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."5 A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit, and a factual dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.6



The premise of plaintiffs' claims is that defendants had a common law duty under Texas law to include an automatic speed-activated locking mechanism on the bus's rear emergency exit. The question before this Court is whether NHTSA's regulation of school bus emergency exits, FMVSS 217, 7 preempts that state law duty. Although this Court has previously considered a factually similar case, Estrada v. Carpenter Body Works, Inc., we did not speak to the preemptive effect of FMVSS 217.8

There are three ways that a federal law may preempt a state law. First, express preemption occurs when Congress "adopts express language


defining the existence and scope of pre-emption."9 Second, field preemption occurs when "Congress creates a scheme of federal regulation so pervasive as to leave no room for supplementary state regulation."10 Finally, conflict preemption occurs "where it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements," or where state law "stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress."11


Preemptive Effect of NHTSA's Motor Vehicle Safety Standards

With the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (the "Act"), 12 Congress delegated authority to the Department of Transportation ("DOT") to prescribe motor vehicle safety standards.13DOT in turn delegated authority to NHTSA to implement the statute.[14] The Act contains an express preemption clause, which provides as follows: When a motor vehicle safety standard is in effect under this chapter, a State or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe or continue in effect a standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment only if the standard is identical to the standard prescribed under this chapter.[15]


Importantly, however, Congress included a savings clause which states that "[c]ompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law."16

In Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., the Supreme Court held that this express preemption provision does not preclude states-through common law-from imposing duties on vehicle manufacturers beyond what is required by federal law.17 In other words, the Act does not expressly preempt a state's common law tort duties, even those that differ from the federal requirements.18 However, the Geier Court also held that ordinary conflict preemption principles apply.19 Thus, to the extent a state's common law duty differs from the federal regulatory requirements, it is preempted if either (1) it would be impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal law, or (2) the state law poses an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives and purposes of the federal rule.20


Preemptive Effect of FMVSS 217

As noted, the first type of conflict preemption, impossibility, occurs when a private party physically cannot comply with both a federal and state law.21 As explained below, we conclude that plaintiffs' claims are preempted because it would be impossible to include an automatic speed-activated lock and comply with FMVSS 217.


The primary bar to plaintiffs' claims within FMVSS 217 is S5.3.3.1, which provides, in full: When tested under the conditions of S6., both before and after the window retention test required by S5.1, each school bus emergency exit door shall allow manual release of the door by a single person, from both inside and outside the passenger compartment, using a force application that conforms to S5.3.3.1(a) through (c) of this section, except a...

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