Wood v. General Motors Corp.

Decision Date08 May 1987
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 84-1566-Y.
Citation673 F. Supp. 1108
PartiesPatricia M. WOOD, Francis X. Wood, and Elizabeth Wood, Plaintiffs, v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts

Moquin & Daley, Edmund P. Daley, Boston, Mass., for plaintiffs.

John A.K. Grunert, Richard P. Campbell, Campbell and Associates, Boston, Mass., for defendant.


YOUNG, District Judge.

The plaintiffs Francis and Elizabeth Wood and their daughter Patricia initiated this diversity action after Patricia Wood suffered severe injuries as a result of an accident in an automobile manufactured by the defendant General Motors Corporation ("General Motors").


For the purposes of addressing the present motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, the facts are straight-forward and essentially undisputed. On May 19, 1981, Patricia Wood was on her way home from school, riding as a passenger in a 1976 General Motors Blazer. Wood was seated, apparently unbelted, in the front seat. The vehicle, while travelling in excess of thirty miles per hour, collided head on into a roadside tree. Wood suffered a broken neck and was rendered quadriplegic. On May 18, 1984, she and her parents commenced this action.

The Woods' products liability action alleges that General Motors' automobile was, when manufactured and released from the factory, in a defective condition and unreasonably dangerous to the user. The Woods' theory is that General Motors' failure to install a passive restraint system, specifically the failure to equip the automobile with air bags or automatic seatbelts, rendered the car defective and this defect caused the Woods to suffer their injuries. The Woods claim that their injuries are due to General Motors' negligence, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, Mass.Gen.Laws ch. 106, § 2-314(2)(c), and conduct in violation of Mass.Gen.Laws ch. 93A, §§ 2 and 9. Moreover, Francis and Elizabeth Wood both claim injuries based upon a loss of consortium theory.1

General Motors has filed a motion for summary judgment on the negligence, breach of warranty, and chapter 93A claims and a motion to dismiss the loss of consortium claim. General Motors contends that its summary judgment motion should be granted because the Woods' claims are preempted by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act ("Safety Act"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1420 (1982 & Supp.1987) and the regulations promulgated thereunder. General Motors also contends that the tort law of Massachusetts recognizes neither the claim that the lack of passive restraint systems can render a motor vehicle unreasonably dangerous nor, in the circumstances of this case, the claim for loss of consortium. There is considerable thoughtful support for General Motors' position on the preemption issue,2 no specific Massachusetts guidance on the issue whether breach of warranty can be premised on the absence of passive restraints, and scant and contradictory lower court precedent concerning the recognition of a claim for loss of consortium in these circumstances.3 Even so, after careful reflection, this Court concludes that General Motors' motions ought be denied and the case ought stand for trial.


Congress established the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1420 (1966), in response to the "soaring rate of death and debilitation on the Nation's highways." S.Rep. No. 1301, 89th Cong.2d Sess., reprinted in 1966 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News, 2709, 2709 (hereinafter S.Rep. No. 1301). Section 1381, the Congressional declaration of purpose, declares that the "purpose of this chapter is to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents." 15 U.S.C. § 1381 (1982). The legislation places the "primary responsibility" for establishing safety standards on the federal government. The role of the states in the motor vehicle safety regulatory scheme is set forth in § 1392(d):

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.

Thus, states are not preempted from enforcing safety standards identical to federal standards. In essence, the states' regulations should complement the federal regulatory scheme. S.Rep. No. 505, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted in 1982 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News, 3169, 3174. Not only do states have the authority to establish identical regulations, but also they may regulate on "aspects of performance" not specifically established by the federal government. Chrysler Corp. v. Rhodes, 416 F.2d 319 (1st Cir.1969) (where federal regulations did not deal with specific feature of safety lamp, states may regulate area). It is only when a federal standard deals with a specific "aspect of performance" of a vehicle or item of equipment that nonidentical state regulations are precluded. Id. at 325. Finally, Congress explicitly intended to retain state tort remedies. It enacted a "savings clause," § 1397(c), which provides that "compliance with any federal motor vehicle safety standard issued under this subchapter does not exempt any person from any liability under common law."

Congress implemented the motor vehicle safety standard plan by directing the Secretary of Transportation to establish federal standards. 15 U.S.C. § 1392(a). The Secretary delegated this authority to the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("Administrator").4 Pursuant to this authority, the Administrator issued Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 ("Standard 208"), entitled "Occupant Crash Protection."

Standard 208 "bears a complex and convoluted history." Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Ass'n v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 463 U.S. 29, 35, 103 S.Ct. 2856, 2862, 77 L.Ed.2d 443 (1983). As originally issued in 1967, Standard 208 required only the installation of seatbelts. 32 Fed.Reg. 2408, 2415 (1967). Due to the low levels of seatbelt usage, the Administrator amended Standard 208 in 1970 to include passive restraint requirements. 34 Fed.Reg. 11,148 (1969). The two forms of passive restraints considered were "passive seat-belts" and airbags. Passive or automatic seatbelts are fastened to the interior of the door and deploy automatically when the door is closed by attaching to the car floor. Airbags are inflatable devices concealed in the dashboard and steering column that inflate automatically when a sensor indicates that the "deceleration forces from an accident have exceeded a preset minimum." State Farm, 463 U.S. at 35, 103 S.Ct. at 2862. In 1972, Standard 208 was amended to require the gradual phasing in of passive protection for all cars. For models made before August 1975, manufacturers were permitted to use manual belts with a warning or an "ignition interlock" system,5 which prevented a car from starting until the belts were fastened. For models made after August 1975, the rule did not "dictate any particular form of passive protection, but ... established minimum criteria that cars would have to meet." Pacific Legal Foundation v. Department of Transportation, 593 F.2d 1338, 1341 (D.C.Cir.) cert. denied, 444 U.S. 830, 100 S.Ct. 57, 62 L.Ed.2d 38 (1979). In 1975, the imposition of the mandatory passive restraint system was postponed until August, 1976. 40 Fed.Reg. 16,217 (1975).

Then, in June, 1976, the Secretary of Transportation suspended the passive restraint requirement and extended the optional alternatives indefinitely.6 The Secretary feared public hostility against the new systems. State Farm, 463 U.S. at 37, 103 S.Ct. at 2863 (citing Secretary Coleman's Decision of Dec. 6, 1976). The Secretary's successor disagreed and reimposed the mandatory requirement four months later. 42 Fed.Reg. 34,289 (1976). The new standard mandated the phasing in of passive restraints between 1982 and 1984. The standard was submitted to Congress in accordance with 15 U.S.C. § 1410(b), where no action was taken. S.Rep. No. 481, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. (1977) (the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held four days of hearings and issued a report endorsing the standard).

In 1981, the Administrator rescinded the passive restraint requirements. The Supreme Court, in State Farm, held that the rescission was arbitrary and capricious and remanded the matter to the Administrator for further consideration. State Farm, 463 U.S. at 57, 103 S.Ct. at 2874. In response, the Administrator reimposed the passive restraint requirement with phasing-in to begin on September 1, 1986 and becoming mandatory by September 1, 1989 unless states with populations aggregating two thirds of the nation's total population pass mandatory seatbelt use laws by April, 1989. 49 Fed.Reg. 28,962, 28,963 (1984). A recent challenge to the Administrator's decision was judged not ripe by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Dole, 802 F.2d 474 (D.C.Cir.1986), cert. denied, New York v. Dole, ___ U.S....

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