(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday vacated a decision that found Ford Motor did not have to face a wrongful death suit over its failure to use the safest materials available.
Coming on the heels of a decision Wednesday that found Mazda could be sued for choosing to fit certain vehicle seats with simple lap belts, as opposed to lap-and-shoulder belts, the justices ordered the South Carolina Supreme Court to further consider the Ford case in that light.
Mary Robyn Priester had come out empty-handed in an August 2010 decision from the South Carolina Supreme Court. Eight years earlier, her son, James Lloyd, had been a passenger in a Ford pickup truck that rolled several times in an accident. Both James and the driver, Preston Cromer, were under the age of 21 and had been drinking at a strip club before getting in the truck.
Cromer was speeding and drove off the road. James, who was not wearing a seatbelt while sitting in the rear of the truck, was ejected in the crash and died at the scene.
His mother sued Ford, Cromer, the strip club and associates of the club. She claimed that Ford had breached its warranty “by using inappropriate glazing materials which would retain occupants inside the vehicle, and which would not shatter on impact,” according to the complaint, as quoted in the state Supreme Court’s decision.
The trial court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the Priester’s claim was pre-empted by federal safety standards for motor vehicle. Those standards give auto manufacturers an option about what kind of tempered glass to install for a vehicle’s side windows. After noting inconsistency among the courts over such pre-emption, the state Supreme Court upheld the decision to dismiss the claims against Ford.
Last week, the nation’s highest court unanimously spelled out why such suits are not necessarily pre-empted by federal safety standards. The justices said the choice afforded to manufacturers does not reflect “a significant objective” of the federal regulation.
Whereas the Transportation Department had a significant objective in giving manufacturers choice among different kinds of passive restraint devices – rather than favoring one type of passive restraints, such as airbags – that objective does not exist in seat belt standards, or, apparently, glass materials for a vehicle’s side windows.
In a concurring opinion for Mazda last week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that the courts cannot call upon the airbag decision to “justify implied pre-emption.”
Aside from noting that the lower court should consider Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America on remand, the court on did not issue a formal opinion on Monday.