49 U.S.C. §30103
(1) When a motor vehicle safety standard is in effect under this chapter [49 USCS §§ 30101 et seq.], a State or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe or continue in effect a standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment only if the standard is identical to the standard prescribed under this chapter [49 USCS §§ 30101 et seq.]. However, the United States Government, a State, or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe a standard for a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment obtained for its own use that imposes a higher performance requirement than that required by the otherwise applicable standard under this chapter [49 USCS §§ 30101 et seq.].
(2) A State may enforce a standard that is identical to a standard prescribed under this chapter [49 USCS §§ 30101 et seq.].
(e) Common law liability. Compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter [49 USCS §§ 30101 et seq.] does not exempt a person from liability at common law.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (NTMVSA, or “Safety Act”) gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) the ability to create Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS), which are automobile manufacturing regulations.
In litigation, the most common preemption problems seem to center around determining if state law tort claims are preempted by the NTMVSA. Usually this is in the context of an FMVSS that allows manufacturer to choose between safety options, where a state tort claim seeks damages for not making a specific choice. Two Supreme Court cases, Geier and Williamson, have provided a framework for lower courts. The Court has decided that although the statute’s express preemption provision does not preempt tort law claims, implicit preemption principles can still bar the lawsuits. The Court emphasized conflict preemption: if preserving manufacturer’s choice is a significant regulatory objective, then the state tort claim is preempted. If the choice is not a significant regulatory objective, then the claim is not preempted. To determine if it is or is not, courts should look to statutory history, text, commentary, and the NHSTA’s interpretation at the time of enactment and now.
Geier v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861 (2000)
Facts: A standard created by the Department of Transportation under the NTMVSA did not require auto manufacturers to install airbags into all 1987 vehicles. An auto manufacturer complied with the standard. Geier drove one of Defendant’s cars, without airbags, when she crashed. Geier alleges that the auto manufacturer should be liable for negligence in failing to install airbags, irrespective of the standard.
Issue: Does the NTMVSA preempt a state common-law tort action?
Holding: Conflict preemption. The tort suit is preempted. Though the statute’s express preemption provision does not preempt the lawsuit, the ordinary workings of the preemption principles, such as conflict preemption, still apply.
Williamson v. Mazda Motor of Am., Inc., 562 U.S. 323 (2011)
Facts: A Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) allows auto manufacturers to have a choice between which seat belt to install on inner rear seats. Thanh Williamson died in an accident while riding in the rear aisle seat of a Mazda minivan, equipped with a lap belt instead of a lap-and-shoulder belt.
Issue: Does the NTMVSA preempt a state tort suit that would eliminate a choice otherwise allowed through the federal regulation?
Holding: When a choice is promulgated by the Safety Act, it does not preempt state tort actions when that choice is not a significant regulatory objective. To determine objective – look to history, agency’s interpretation at time of enactment, and agency’s interpretation now.
3rd Circuit Court of Appeals
Swope v. STI Transit Co., 796 F.Supp. 160 (E.D.P.A. 1992)
Facts: In a car accident, Marian Stewart was killed and her two children were injured. A Defendant, American Trailers, Inc., manufactured and sold the semi-trailer from the accident. Though the trailer was in compliance with the standards from the NTMVSA, Plaintiffs alleged negligence for failing to install reflectors, lighting, or paint to make the trailer visible after dark.
Issue: For the purpose of summary judgment, does a common-law action seeking to impose damages for failing to take additional precautions not mandated under the NTMVSA?
Rule: The NTMVSA does not preempt a common law action unless the common law action presents an actual, direct conflict with the statutory scheme.
Holding: For the purpose of summary judgment, no, it is not preempted.
5th Circuit Court of Appeals
O’Hara v. GMC, 508 F.3d 753 (5th Cir. 2007)
Facts: During an accident, a minor was partially ejected from a car and injured. Her parents sued in state court for strict liability and negligence for defective design, manufacture, and marketing of the car’s side windows.
Issue: Does the FMVSS preempt the state law tort claim?
Rule: “When [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] regulations are only intended to create a ‘minimum safety standard,’ states are free to adopt common law rules which require a greater level of safety.”
Holding: No, the state law tort claim is not preempted.
6th Circuit Court of Appeals
Fabian v. Fulmer Helmets, Inc., 628 F.3d 278 (6th Circuit, 2010)
Facts: The NHTSA relies on self-certification for helmets, with random compliance checks. In 2002, NHTSA selected the small version of Defendant’s helmet for testing; the helmet failed two components of the test. Defendant did not recall the helmets, inform customers, or attempt to fix the issues moving forward. Fabian bought a helmet, and sold it to a friend, who then died of severe brain trauma while in a motorcycle crash using the helmet. Plaintiff is seeking recovery from a helmet manufacturer for misrepresenting the safety of its helmets.
Issue: Does the Safety Act preempt this lawsuit?
Holding: No, the lawsuit is not preempted.
9th Circuit Court of Appeals
Morris v. Mitsubishi Motors N. Am., Inc., 782 F. Supp. 2d 1149 (E.D.W.A. 2011)
Facts: Morris is bringing a failure to warn claim under the Washington Product Liability Act.
Issue: Is the WLPA preempted by FMVSS 208 – a standard promulgated by the NHSTA under the NTMVSA?
Holding: Yes – it is preempted. The Court finds that NHSTA was concerned about “information overload” when created FMVSS 208. Therefore, to the extent that the suit concerns additional warnings to drivers of short statute, the claim is preempted.
Soto v. Tu Phuoc Nguyen, 634 F. Supp. 2d 1096 (E.D.C.A. 2009)
Facts: Defendant collided with a Greyhound bus, causing the bus to roll onto its side. Plaintiff, passengers on the bus, allege that Greyhound negligently failed to provide passenger seatbelts.
Issue: Is California’s tort law implicitly preempted by the Safety Act?
Holding: No, it is not preempted.
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
Myrick v. Freuhauf Corp., 13 F.3d 1516 (11th Cir. 1994)
Facts: Myrick is permanently paraplegic and brain damages after the rear wheels of a 18-wheel tractor-trailer locked, causing it to jackknife and swing into oncoming traffic.
Issue: Is a common law tort action preempted by the Safety Act?
Holding: No, it is not preempted.
Dashi v. Nissan N. Am., Inc., 247 Ariz. 56 (Court of Appeals of Arizona (intermediary court), 2019)
Facts: Dashi was in a car accident with a Nissan, where the Nissan was no equipped with automatic emergency braking systems, which includes Forward Collision Warning and Crash Imminent Braking. Dashi sued Nissan for failing to install the safety features. However, the NHTSA left the choice to install automatic braking features to manufacturers.
Issue: Does the doctrine of implied preemption under the NHSTA prevent the state common-law tort claim?
Holding: Yes, it is preempted. Looking at the regulatory history, text, commentary, and NHTSA’s explanation of objectives, the NHTSA determined manufacturer’s choice is a significant regulatory objective.
Priester v. Cromer, 401 S.C. 38 (Supreme Court of South Carolina, 2012)
Facts: Priester died after a car crash, where Cromer drove a 1997 pick-up truck and rolled it several times. FMVSS 205 allowed a choice between laminated and tempered glass. Relying on Geier, the Court initially ruled that FMVSS preempted the state law products liability claim. In the meantime, the Supreme Court decided Williamson and vacated the judgment of this Court.
Issue: Does FMVSS 205 preempt this state law product liability claim?
Holding: Yes, it is preempted. The lawsuit would frustrate two significant federal objectives of FMVSS 205.
Lake v. Memphis Landsmen, LLC, 405 S.W.3d 47 (Tenn. 2013)
Facts: A passenger suffered a severe brain injury after a concrete truck and shuttle bus collided. His wife sued under theories of negligence and product liability.
Issue: Are the Plaintiff’s state law claims preempted by the FMVSS?
Holding: No, they are not preempted.
MCI Sales & Serv. v. Hinton, 329 S.W. 475 (Tex. 2010)
Facts: A jury verdict, based in state common law, awarded compensation after a manufacturer complied with federal safety regulations. The verdict held that the manufacturer should have installed a different choice of glazing material, but the option was permitted under the FMVSS.
Issue: Do the federal safety standards preempt a jury decision in a state suit?
Holding: No, they are not preempted.
Morgan v. Ford Motor Co., 224 W.Va. 62 (W. Va. 2009)
Facts: Morgan was injured when his 1999 Ford Expedition rolled; his left hand and arm were ejected through broken tempered glass, causing severe injuries.
Issue: Does FMVSS 205 preempt the state law tort claims?
Holding: Yes, it is preempted.