Wilson v. Pleasant

Decision Date28 December 1995
Docket NumberNo. 64S03-9506-CV-693,64S03-9506-CV-693
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,452 Mary WILSON, Individually, and as the Administrator of the Estate of James Darryl Wilson, Deceased; et al., Appellant, v. William G. PLEASANT, Jr., General Motors Corporation, Appellee.
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

SULLIVAN, Justice.

We hold that the Federal National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 ("Safety Act"), 1 and certain safety regulations promulgated under it, do not pre-empt a state common law tort claim of negligence based on failure to install an airbag.


On November 10, 1988, James Wilson was driving a 1986 Chevrolet automobile manufactured by General Motors ("GM") when he was hit head on by an automobile driven by William Pleasant. Wilson, who was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident, died at the scene.

Wilson's estate (and various others, collectively known as "Wilson") brought suit against Pleasant and GM. Wilson alleged that GM was negligent in designing, manufacturing, and selling a vehicle that was not crashworthy because the vehicle did not contain an airbag passive restraint system.

In response, GM filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the Safety Act and certain safety regulations promulgated under it pre-empted Wilson's common law claims.

The trial court granted GM's motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision and found that although the Safety Act did not expressly pre-empt a common law claim such as the one asserted in this case, it impliedly did so. Wilson v. Pleasant (1994), Ind.App., 645 N.E.2d 638.


Congress passed the Safety Act in 1966 to "reduce traffic accidents and death and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents." 15 U.S.C. § 1381 (1988). Two provisions of the Safety Act are relevant to this case. First, the Safety Act contains a pre-emption clause in section 1392(d). The pre-emption clause states:

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.

15 U.S.C. § 1392(d). In addition to the pre-emption clause, the Safety Act contains a state common law savings clause: "Compliance with any Federal motor vehicle safety standard issued under this subchapter does not exempt any person from liability under common law." 15 U.S.C. § 1397(k).

Pursuant to the authority granted in the Safety Act, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation promulgated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 ("Rule 208"). 2 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S4.1.2.1-S4.1.2.3 (1994). Rule 208 gave the manufacturer of Wilson's 1986 automobile three possible choices for providing passenger crash protection. The choices were: "First option--frontal/angular automatic protection system.... Second option--head-on automatic protection system.... Third option--lap and shoulder belt protection system with belt warning." Id. An airbag system would have complied with the first or second option. The automobile Wilson was driving at the time of the accident was equipped with a manual seat belt system that fully complied with the third option.


Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, federal law is the supreme law of the land. U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. While "the historic police powers of the States [are] not to be superseded by ... Federal Act unless that [is] the clear and manifest intent of Congress," Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 1152, 91 L.Ed. 1447 (1947), rev'd on other grounds 331 U.S. 247, 67 S.Ct. 1160, 91 L.Ed. 1468 (1947), it has been settled since M'Culloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 427, 4 L.Ed. 579 (1819), that state law that conflicts with federal law is "without effect." Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746, 101 S.Ct. 2114, 2129, 68 L.Ed.2d 576 (1981). Congress's intent to pre-empt state law may be express, i.e., "explicitly stated in the statute's language," or "implied," i.e., "implicitly contained in [the statute's] structure and purpose." Jones v Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 525, 97 S.Ct. 1305, 1309, 51 L.Ed.2d 604 (1977). In the absence of an express congressional command, state law is pre-empted if that law actually conflicts with federal law, see Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Energy Resources Conservation and Dev. Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, 204, 103 S.Ct. 1713, 1722, 75 L.Ed.2d 752 (1983). 3


We agree with the Court of Appeals that the Safety Act does not expressly pre-empt a state common law claim in this case. Wilson, 645 N.E.2d at 641. The pre-emption clause found in the Safety Act explicitly refers, with respect to "any motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment," only to state "safety standard[s] applicable to the same aspect of performance of such vehicle or item of equipment which is not identical to the federal standard." 15 U.S.C. § 1392(d). In addition, the presence of the savings clause negates any notion of express pre-emption of state common law claims. Therefore, we find that the Safety Act does not expressly pre-empt a state common law claim in this case. Accord, Pokorny v. Ford Motor Co., 902 F.2d 1116, 1121 (3d Cir.1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 853, 111 S.Ct. 147, 112 L.Ed.2d 113 (1990); Taylor v. General Motors Corp., 875 F.2d 816, 825 (11th Cir.1989), cert. denied 494 U.S. 1065, 110 S.Ct. 1781, 108 L.Ed.2d 783 (1990); Wood v. General Motors Corp., 865 F.2d 395, 402 (1st Cir.1988), cert. denied 494 U.S. 1065, 110 S.Ct. 1781, 108 L.Ed.2d 782 (1990). See also Heath v. General Motors Corp., 756 F.Supp. 1144, 1146-47 (S.D.Ind.1991) (finding no express preemption; collecting cases).


General Motors argues that even if, and the Court of Appeals held that even though, the Safety Act does not expressly pre-empt the common law claim at issue, it impliedly does so in that the common law claim actually conflicts with the federal regulation. Wilson, 645 N.E.2d at 641. The clear weight of authority prior to 1992 supported General Motors's view that the Safety Act impliedly pre-empts state common law claims like the one asserted by Wilson. See, e.g., Pokorny, 902 F.2d 1116; Kitts v. General Motors Corp., 875 F.2d 787 (10th Cir.1989), cert. denied 494 U.S. 1065, 110 S.Ct. 1781, 108 L.Ed.2d 783 (1990); Taylor, 875 F.2d 816; and Wood, 865 F.2d 395. 4 We will return to these cases in parts V and VI of this opinion but first address the vitality of the concept of implied pre-emption in airbag cases following recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court, particularly Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 112 S.Ct. 2608, 120 L.Ed.2d 407 (1992), and Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 115 S.Ct. 1483, 131 L.Ed.2d 385 (1995).


Cipollone did not involve airbags or even auto safety. Rather, it involved common law claims made against cigarette manufacturers alleging responsibility for the death of smoker and lung cancer victim Rose Cipollone. The manufacturers defended on grounds that the common law claims were pre-empted by the terms of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, 5 enacted in 1965 (the "1965 Act"), and its successor, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 (the "1969 Act").

The Supreme Court began its analysis by setting forth basic principles of pre-emption--the Supremacy Clause; the presumption that state police powers are not superseded by federal law unless that is "the clear and manifest intent of Congress;" 6 and the definitions of express and implied pre-emption. The Court then noted that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had conducted its analysis of the pre-emption clauses of the Acts by reading the statute as a whole. Rejecting this approach, the Supreme Court concluded that the pre-emptive scope of each of the two acts was "governed entirely by the express language of § 5 [the pre-emption clauses] of each Act" 7 for the following reason:

When Congress has considered the issue of pre-emption and has included in the enacted legislation a provision explicitly addressing that issue, and when that provision provides a "reliable indicium of congressional intent with respect to state authority," Malone v. White Motor Corp., 435 U.S. [497,] 505, [98 S.Ct. 1185, 1190, 55 L.Ed.2d 443,] there is no need to infer congressional intent to pre-empt state laws from the substantive provisions of the legislation. California Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. Guerra, 479 U.S. 272, 282 [107 S.Ct. 683, 690, 93 L.Ed.2d 613,] (1987) (opinion of MARSHALL, J.). Such reasoning is a variant of the familiar principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius: Congress' enactment of a provision defining the pre-emptive reach of a statute implies that matters beyond that reach are not pre-empted. In this case, the other provisions of the 1965 and 1969 Acts offer no cause to look beyond § 5 of each Act. Therefore, we need only identify the domain expressly pre-empted by each of those sections. As the 1965 and 1969 provisions differ substantially, we consider each in turn.

Id. at...

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