Morgan v. Ford Motor Co., 34139.

Citation680 S.E.2d 77
Decision Date18 June 2009
Docket NumberNo. 34139.,34139.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesJosephine MORGAN, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, a Delaware corporation; Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., an Ohio corporation; and Francis Robert Morgan, Defendants Below, Appellees, and Michelle Archuleta, as Personal Representative of The Estate of Robert Francis Morgan, Cross-Claim Plaintiff Below, Appellant, v. Ford Motor Company, a Delaware corporation, Cross-Claim Defendant Below, Appellee.

Syllabus by the Court

1. Preemption is a question of law reviewed de novo.

2. "The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2, invalidates state laws that interfere with or are contrary to federal law." Syllabus Point 1, Cutright v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 201 W.Va. 50, 491 S.E.2d 308 (1997).

3. Our law has a general bias against preemption. Preemption of topics traditionally regulated by states — like health and safety — is greatly disfavored in the absence of convincing evidence that Congress intended for a federal law to displace a state law.

4. When it is argued that a state law is preempted by a federal law, the focus of analysis is upon congressional intent. Preemption is compelled whether Congress' command is explicitly stated in the statute's language or implicitly contained in its structure and purpose.

5. Although there can be no crystal-clear, distinctly-marked formula for determining whether a state statute is preempted, there are two ways in which preemption may be accomplished: expressly or impliedly.

6. To establish a case of express preemption requires proof that Congress, through specific and plain language, acted within constitutional limits and explicitly intended to preempt the specific field covered by state law.

7. There are two recognized types of implied preemption: field preemption and conflict preemption. Implied field preemption occurs where the scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive that it is reasonable to infer that Congress left no room for the states to supplement it. Implied conflict preemption occurs where compliance with both federal and state regulations is physically impossible, or where the state regulation is an obstacle to the accomplishment or execution of congressional objectives.

8. A federal agency regulation with the force of law can explicitly or implicitly preempt conflicting state regulations. In such cases, a court must not rely on mere agency proclamations that the federal regulation preempts state law, but must perform its own conflict determination, relying on the substance of state and federal law.

Scott S. Segal, Esq., Victor S. Woods, Esq., The Segal Law Firm, Charleston, for the Appellant.

Michael Bonasso, Esq., Alonzo D. Washington, Esq., Flaherty, Sensabaugh & Bonasso, P.L.L.C., Charleston, Bryan D. Cross, Esq., Wheeler Trigg Kennedy, LLP, Denver, CO, for Appellee Ford Motor Company.

Stephanie D. Taylor, Esq., Jones Day, Pittsburgh, PA, for amicus curiae Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc.

KETCHUM, Justice:

In this appeal from the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, we are asked to consider whether a plaintiff's state cause of action against a motor vehicle manufacturer is preempted by federal law. The plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle roll-over accident, in part, because the side-window glass shattered and allowed the plaintiff's arm to exit the vehicle and be pinned between the vehicle and the pavement. The plaintiff contends that his vehicle was defective because the manufacturer used tempered glass in the side-door windows instead of stronger laminated glass.

Upon a motion from the defendant manufacturer, the circuit court granted summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff's glass defect claims. The circuit court concluded that the plaintiff's glass defect claims were preempted by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205, a regulation that permits motor vehicle manufacturers options in choosing side-window materials.

After carefully reviewing the record, the briefs and arguments of the parties, and the federal legal authorities on this question, we feel compelled to find that the circuit court's decision was correct. As set forth below, we hold that the plaintiff's side-window glass defect claims are preempted by federal law, and affirm the circuit court's summary judgment order entered in favor of the vehicle manufacturer.

I. Facts and Background

On January 30, 2001, appellant Francis Robert Morgan ("Mr.Morgan") was driving a 1999 Ford Expedition south on Interstate 79 in Braxton County, West Virginia. The vehicle rolled over, and Mr. Morgan's left hand and left arm were ejected through the broken tempered glass of the driver's side-door window and pinched between the ground and the exterior of the door panel. Mr. Morgan suffered a severe degloving injury to his left arm and hand as a result.

Mr. Morgan's wife, Josephine Morgan, was sitting in the second row of the vehicle and was injured in the rollover. Mrs. Morgan filed the underlying action in this case on January 27, 2003, naming her husband and appellee Ford Motor Company ("Ford") as party defendants. Mr. Morgan answered the complaint on January 31, 2003, and asserted cross claims against Ford that included, inter alia, causes of action for strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, fraudulent omission, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.1

Mr. Morgan's causes of action against Ford relate to the crashworthiness of the 1999 Ford Expedition vehicle, and are predicated on Ford's installation of tempered glass in the side windows of the vehicle. Mr. Morgan's expert, Thomas J. Feaheny, issued a report indicating that the 1999 Ford Expedition was defective and unreasonably dangerous in its design because of the tempered glass. It was Mr. Feaheny's opinion that laminated glass, or some other ejection-resistant side-window glass or glazing—which was technologically and economically feasible— should have been used, and would have prevented the ejection of Mr. Morgan's arm through the driver's side window.2

Another expert retained by Mr. Morgan, Paul Lewis, Jr., was a biomechanics specialist. Like Mr. Feaheny, Mr. Lewis was of the opinion that Mr. Morgan would not have suffered the degloving injury had the glass in the vehicle's window prevented his arm from exiting the confines of the vehicle during the rollover.

On June 26, 2007, Ford filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure asserting, among other things, that Mr. Morgan's glass-defect claims were preempted by federal law. Ford contended that Mr. Morgan's state law side-window-glass defect claims were impliedly preempted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 49 U.S.C. § 30101, et seq. ("the Safety Act"), and its implementing regulation pertaining to glass/glazing, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205 ("FMVSS 205").

In an order filed September 17, 2007, the circuit court granted Ford's motion for summary judgment. The circuit court found that the appellant's "claim of a glass/glazing defect in the subject vehicle relates solely to the choice of tempered glass over other permitted options, and not to any application or specific design or manufacturing defect in the glass/glazing present in the subject vehicle." The circuit court further found that FMVSS 205 "permits a motor vehicle manufacturer to use one of several options for the materials in side and rear windows, including glass-plastic, laminates, and tempered glass" and found that Ford had used one those optional glazing materials, tempered glass, in the side windows of the subject 1999 Ford Explorer.

In its order, the circuit court looked to the United States Supreme Court's interpretation of the Safety Act in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S.Ct. 1913, 146 L.Ed.2d 914 (2000). In Geier the plaintiff asserted that her vehicle was defective because the vehicle's manufacturer failed to equip it with airbags. The manufacturer —relying upon a list of safety options in the then-effective variant of FMVSS 208— chose to equip the vehicle with only seatbelts. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because FMVSS 208 deliberately provided manufacturers with a range of choices among different passive restraint devices (including seatbelts and airbags), the plaintiff's defect suit was pre-empted. The circuit court interpreted the Geier decision to mean that because FMVSS 208 was deliberately designed to provide manufacturers with safety options, a state court defect action that might compel a manufacturer to choose one of those safety options over the others available under the regulation frustrated the federal scheme and was, therefore, impliedly preempted by the federal regulation.

Applying this interpretation of FMVSS 208 in Geier to FMVSS 205 in the case below, the circuit court below determined that:

[B]ecause tempered glass is a permitted option for manufacturers to use in vehicle side windows under FMVSS 205, the imposition of state tort liability based on the exercise of such option would frustrate the full purposes and objectives of Congress.

The circuit court therefore concluded that the appellant's glass/glazing defect claim was preempted by federal law, and entered judgment for appellee Ford.

The appellant, Mr. Morgan, now appeals the circuit court's September 17, 2007 summary judgment order.

III. Discussion

The sole issue raised in this appeal is whether the circuit court erred in its conclusion that appellant Mr. Morgan's side-window glass and...

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