WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday looked at whether federal standards giving car makers options in design and equipment requirements pre-empt design-defect claims at the state level.
The case arose from a California tort lawsuit accusing Mazda of failing to install a lap and shoulder belt instead of just a lap belt in the center back seat of a minivan, which allegedly led to a woman's death in a collision.
The attorney for the victim's family, Martin Buchanan, said the family's state-law claims should be permitted based on Congress' intent to let common law play a role in determining safe vehicle standards.
Justice Antonin Scalia appeared doubtful.
"Why would the federal government trust juries to supplement whatever the federal rules are but not permit state agencies who studied the matter with experts, to supplement what the federal rules are?" he asked.
Buchanan said common law has an important role in offering compensation to victims and providing manufacturers with incentives to make safer vehicles.
He said state law does not conflict with federal objectives as it did in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., in which the high court ruled that product liability claims stating that an automobile without air bags was defective and unreasonably dangerous were pre-empted by federal safety standards making air bags optional.
"Why are we looking to Geier when you have a statute that says common law remedies are safe?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked. "I mean, as long as it says that -- maybe it didn't make a whole lot of sense, but they did it."
"Manufacturers are always at risk for common law claims under this statute, because this statute expressly says they are," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Mazda's attorney, Gregory Garre, said this was a "rare" case in which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets safety standards, chose not to make the lap and shoulder belt combination mandatory because of safety and practability concerns.
He said the flexibility necessary to advance federal safety objectives would be frustrated by a mandate.
Justice Elena Kagan, the former U.S. solicitor general, has recused herself from the case.
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