WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court reversed course Wednesday and ruled that the nation’s automakers can be sued for failing to install the most effective safety equipment in their vehicles.
The unanimous decision clears the way for a California man to sue Mazda Motors because his family’s 1993 minivan did not have a lap and shoulder belt in a middle rear seat. His wife, Thanh Williamson, was sitting in that rear seat wearing just a lap belt when their car was struck head-on on a Utah highway. She died in the accident.
Delbert Williamson sued Mazda and alleged that its failure to install the more-effective safety device resulted in his wife’s death. But judges in California had thrown out his lawsuit, citing a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that shielded automakers from lawsuits for their failure to immediately install airbags in all their vehicles.
In a surprise outcome, the high court reversed the California courts and cleared the way for Williamson’s lawsuit to proceed. Its opinion also backed away from its earlier view that the federal motor-vehicle safety law blocks most safety-related lawsuits against automakers.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer described the federal safety regulations as setting forth only “minimum standards,” not the “maximum standards” required by law. Lawsuits from injured motorists can play a “continued meaningful role,” he added, by requiring automakers to go further in seeking safety.
It is not clear whether the decision in Williamson v. Mazda will open a door to many more successful suits against automakers. Much depends on the specifics of the federal motor-vehicle safety regulations.