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Geier v. American Honda Motor Company

May 22, 2000

ALEXIS GEIER, ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR COMPANY, INC., ET AL.



Court Below: 166 F. 3d 1236

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 1999

GEIER v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

GEIER et al. v. AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO., INC., et al.

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The District Of Columbia Circuit

No. 98-1811.

Argued December 7, 1999

Decided May 22, 2000

Pursuant to its authority under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, the Department of Transportation promulgated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208, which required auto manufacturers to equip some but not all of their 1987 vehicles with passive restraints. Petitioner Alexis Geier was injured in an accident while driving a 1987 Honda Accord that did not have such restraints. She and her parents, also petitioners, sought damages under District of Columbia tort law, claiming, inter alia, that respondents (hereinafter American Honda) were negligent in not equipping the Accord with a driver's side airbag. Ruling that their claims were expressly pre-empted by the Act, the District Court granted American Honda summary judgment. In affirming, the Court of Appeals concluded that, because petitioners' state tort claims posed an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives of FMVSS 208, those claims conflicted with that standard and that, under ordinary pre-emption principles, the Act consequently pre-empted the lawsuit.

Held: Petitioners' "no airbag" lawsuit conflicts with the objectives of FMVSS 208 and is therefore pre-empted by the Act. Pp. 3-23.

(a) The Act's pre-emption provision, 15 U. S. C. §1392(d), does not expressly pre-empt this lawsuit. The presence of a saving clause, which says that "[c]compliance with" a federal safety standard "does not exempt any person from any liability under common law," §1397(k), requires that the pre-emption provision be read narrowly to pre-empt only state statutes and regulations. The saving clause assumes that there are a significant number of common-law liability cases to save. And reading the express pre-emption provision to exclude common-law tort actions gives actual meaning to the saving clause's literal language, while leaving adequate room for state tort law to operate where, for example, federal law creates only a minimum safety standard. Pp. 3-5.

(b) However, the saving clause does not bar the ordinary working of conflict pre-emption principles. Nothing in that clause suggests an intent to save state tort actions that conflict with federal regulations. The words "[c]compliance" and "does not exempt" sound as if they simply bar a defense that compliance with a federal standard automatically exempts a defendant from state law, whether the Federal Government meant that standard to be an absolute, or a minimum, requirement. This interpretation does not conflict with the purpose of the saving provision, for it preserves actions that seek to establish greater safety than the minimum safety achieved by a federal regulation intended to provide a floor. Moreover, this Court has repeatedly declined to give broad effect to saving clauses where doing so would upset the careful regulatory scheme established by federal law, a concern applicable here. The pre-emption provision and the saving provision, read together, reflect a neutral policy, not a specially favorable or unfavorable one, towards the application of ordinary conflict pre-emption. The pre-emption provision itself favors pre-emption of state tort suits, while the saving clause disfavors pre-emption at least some of the time. However, there is nothing in any natural reading of the two provisions that would favor one policy over the other where a jury-imposed safety standard actually conflicts with a federal safety standard. Pp. 5-11.

(c) This lawsuit actually conflicts with FMVSS 208 and the Act itself. DOT saw FMVSS 208 not as a minimum standard, but as a way to provide a manufacturer with a range of choices among different passive restraint systems that would be gradually introduced, thereby lowering costs, overcoming technical safety problems, encouraging technological development, and winning widespread consumer acceptance -- all of which would promote FMVSS 208's safety objectives. The standard's history helps explain why and how DOT sought these objectives. DOT began instituting passive restraint requirements in 1970, but it always permitted passive restraint options. Public resistance to an ignition interlock device that in effect forced occupants to buckle up their manual belts influenced DOT's subsequent initiatives. The 1984 version of FMVSS 208 reflected several significant considerations regarding the effectiveness of manual seatbelts and the likelihood that passengers would leave their manual seatbelts unbuckled, the advantages and disadvantages of passive restraints, and the public's resistance to the installation or use of then-available passive restraint devices. Most importantly, it deliberately sought variety, rejecting an "all airbag" standard because perceived or real safety concerns threatened a backlash more easily overcome with a mix of several different devices. A mix would also help develop data on comparative effectiveness, allow the industry time to overcome safety problems and high production costs associated with airbags, and facilitate the development of alternative, cheaper, and safer passive restraint systems, thereby building public confidence necessary to avoid an interlock-type fiasco. The 1984 standard also deliberately sought to gradually phase-in passive restraints, starting with a 10% requirement in 1987 vehicles. The requirement was also conditional and would stay in effect only if two-thirds of the States did not adopt mandatory buckle-up laws. A rule of state tort law imposing a duty to install airbags in cars such as petitioners' would have presented an obstacle to the variety and mix of devices that the federal regulation sought and to the phase-in that the federal regulation deliberately imposed. It would also have made adoption of state mandatory seatbelt laws less likely. This Court's pre-emption cases assume compliance with the state law duty in question, and do not turn on such compliance-related considerations as whether a private party would ignore state legal obligations or how likely it is that state law actually would be enforced. Finally, some weight is placed upon DOT's interpretation of FMVSS 208's objectives and its conclusion that a tort suit such as this one would stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of those objectives. DOT is likely to have a thorough understanding of its own regulation and its objectives and is uniquely qualified to comprehend the likely impact of state requirements. Because there is no reason to suspect that the Solicitor General's representation of these views reflects anything other than the agency's fair and considered judgment on the matter, DOT's failure in promulgating FMVSS 208 to address pre-emption explicitly is not determinative. Nor do the agency's views, as presented here, lack coherence. Pp. 11-23.

166 F. 3d 1236, affirmed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breyer

Opinion of the Court

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The District Of Columbia Circuit

This case focuses on the 1984 version of a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard promulgated by the Department of Transportation under the authority of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, 80 Stat. 718, 15 U. S. C. §1381 et seq. (1988 ed.). The standard, FMVSS 208, required auto manufacturers to equip some but not all of their 1987 vehicles with passive restraints. We ask whether the Act pre-empts a state common-law tort action in which the plaintiff claims that the defendant auto manufacturer, who was in compliance with the standard, should nonetheless have equipped a 1987 automobile with airbags. We conclude that the Act, taken together with FMVSS 208, pre-empts the lawsuit.

I.

In 1992, petitioner Alexis Geier, driving a 1987 Honda Accord, collided with a tree and was seriously injured. The car was equipped with manual shoulder and lap belts which Geier had buckled up at the time. The car was not equipped with airbags or other passive restraint devices.

Geier and her parents, also petitioners, sued the car's manufacturer, American Honda Motor Company, Inc., and its affiliates (hereinafter American Honda), under District of Columbia tort law. They claimed, among other things, that American Honda had designed its car negligently and defectively because it lacked a driver's side airbag. App. 3. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit. The court noted that FMVSS 208 gave car manufacturers a choice as to whether to install airbags. And the court concluded that petitioners' lawsuit, because it sought to establish a different safety standard -- i.e., an airbag requirement -- was expressly pre-empted by a provision of the Act which pre-empts "any safety standard" that is not identical to a federal safety standard applicable to the same aspect of performance, 15 U. S. C. §1392(d) (1988 ed.); Civ. No. 95-CV-0064 (D. D.C., Dec. 9, 1997), App. 17. (We, like the courts below and the parties, refer to the pre-1994 version of the statute throughout the opinion; it has been recodified at 49 U. S. C. §30101 et seq.).

The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court's conclusion but on somewhat different reasoning. It had doubts, given the existence of the Act's "saving" clause, 15 U. S. C. §1397(k) (1988 ed.), that petitioners' lawsuit involved the potential creation of the kind of "safety standard" to which the Safety Act's express pre-emption provision refers. But it declined to resolve that question because it found that petitioners' state-law tort claims posed an obstacle to the accomplishment of FMVSS 208's objectives. For that reason, it found that those claims conflicted with FMVSS 208, and that, under ordinary pre-emption principles, the Act consequently pre-empted the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals thus affirmed the District Court's dismissal. 166 F. 3d 1236, 1238-1243 (CADC 1999).

Several state courts have held to the contrary, namely, that neither the Act's express pre-emption nor FMVSS 208 pre-empts a "no airbag" tort suit. See, e.g., Drattel v. Toyota Motor Corp., 92 N. Y. 2d 35, 43-53, 699 N. E. 2d 376, 379-386 (1998); Minton v. Honda of America Mfg., Inc., 80 Ohio St. 3d 62, 70-79, 684 N. E. 2d 648, 655-661 (1997); Munroe v. Galati, 189 Ariz. 113, 115-119, 938 P. 2d 1114, 1116-1120 (1997); Wilson v. Pleasant, 660 N. E. 2d 327, 330-339 (Ind. 1995); Tebbetts v. Ford Motor Co., 140 N. H. 203, 206-207, 665 A. 2d 345, 347-348 (1995). All of the Federal Circuit Courts that have considered the question, however, have found pre-emption. One rested its conclusion on the Act's express pre-emption provision. See, e.g., Harris v. Ford Motor Co., 110 F. 3d 1410, 1413-1415 (CA9 1997). Others, such as the Court of Appeals below, have instead found pre-emption under ordinary pre-emption principles by virtue of the conflict such suits pose to FMVSS 208's objectives, and thus to the Act itself. See, e.g., Montag v. Honda Motor Co., 75 F. 3d 1414, 1417 (CA10 1996); Pokorny v. Ford Motor Co., 902 F. 2d 1116, 1121-1125 (CA3 1990); Taylor v. General Motors Corp., 875 F. 2d 816, 825-827 (CA11 1989); Wood v. General Motors Corp., 865 F. 2d 395, 412-414 (CA1 1988). We granted certiorari to resolve these differences. We now hold that this kind of "no airbag" lawsuit conflicts with the objectives of FMVSS 208, a standard authorized by the Act, and is therefore pre-empted by the Act.

In reaching our conclusion, we consider three subsidiary questions. First, does the Act's express pre-emption provision pre-empt this lawsuit? We think not. Second, do ordinary pre-emption principles nonetheless apply? We hold that they do. Third, does this lawsuit actually conflict with FMVSS 208, hence with the Act itself? We hold that it does.

II.

We first ask whether the Safety Act's express pre-emption provision pre-empts this tort action. The provision reads as follows:

"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." 15 U. S. C. §1392(d) (1988 ed.).

American Honda points out that a majority of this Court has said that a somewhat similar statutory provision in a different federal statute -- a provision that uses the word "requirements" -- may well expressly pre-empt similar tort actions. See, e.g., Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U. S. 470, 502-504 (1996) (plurality opinion); id., at 503-505 (Breyer, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); id., at 509-512 (O'Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Petitioners reply that this statute speaks of pre-empting a state-law "safety standard," not a "requirement," and that a tort action does not involve a safety standard. Hence, they conclude, the express pre-emption provision does not apply.

We need not determine the precise significance of the use of the word "standard," rather than "requirement," however, for the Act contains another provision, which resolves the disagreement. That provision, a "saving" clause, says that "[c]compliance with" a federal safety standard "does not exempt any person from any liability under common law." 15 U. S. C. §1397(k) (1988 ed.). The saving clause assumes that there are some significant number of common-law liability cases to save. And a reading of the express pre-emption provision that excludes common-law tort actions gives actual meaning to the saving clause's literal language, while leaving adequate room for state tort law to operate -- for example, where federal law creates only a floor, i.e., a minimum safety standard. See, e.g., Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 21 (explaining that common-law claim that a vehicle is defectively designed because it lacks antilock brakes would not be pre-empted by 49 CFR §571.105 (1999), a safety standard establishing minimum requirements for brake performance). Without the saving clause, a broad reading of the express pre-emption provision arguably might pre-empt those actions, for, as we have just mentioned, it is possible to read the pre-emption provision, standing alone, as applying to standards imposed in common-law tort actions, as well as standards contained in state legislation or regulations. And if so, it would pre-empt all nonidentical state standards established in tort actions covering the same aspect of performance as an applicable federal standard, even if the federal standard merely established a minimum standard. On that broad reading of the pre-emption clause little, if any, potential "liability at common law" would remain. And few, if any, state tort actions would remain for the saving clause to save. We have found no convincing indication that Congress wanted to pre-empt, not only state statutes and regulations, but also common-law tort actions, in such circumstances. Hence the broad reading cannot be correct. The language of the pre-emption provision permits a narrow reading that excludes common-law actions. Given the presence of the saving clause, we conclude that the pre-emption clause must be so read.

III.

We have just said that the saving clause at least removes tort actions from the scope of the express pre-emption clause. Does it do more? In particular, does it foreclose or limit the operation of ordinary pre-emption principles insofar as those principles instruct us to read statutes as pre-empting state laws (including common-law rules) that "actually conflict" with the statute or federal standards promulgated thereunder? Fidelity Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. De la Cuesta, 458 U. S. 141, 153 (1982). Petitioners concede, as they must in light of Freightliner Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U. S. 280 (1995), that the pre-emption provision, by itself, does not foreclose (through negative implication) "any possibility of implied [conflict] pre-emption," id., at 288 (discussing Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U. S. 504, 517-518 (1992)). But they argue that the saving clause has that very effect.

We recognize that, when this Court previously considered the pre-emptive effect of the statute's language, it appeared to leave open the question of how, or the extent to which, the saving clause saves state-law tort actions that conflict with federal regulations promulgated under the Act. See Freightliner, supra, at 287, n. 3 (declining to address whether the saving clause prevents a manufacturer from "us[ing] a federal safety standard to immunize itself from state common-law liability"). We now conclude that the saving clause (like the express pre-emption provision) does not bar the ordinary working of conflict pre-emption principles.

Nothing in the language of the saving clause suggests an intent to save state-law tort actions that conflict with federal regulations. The words "[c]compliance" and "does not exempt," 15 U. S. C. §1397(k) (1988 ed.), sound as if they simply bar a special kind of defense, namely, a defense that compliance with a federal standard automatically exempts a defendant from state law, whether the Federal Government meant that standard to be an absolute requirement or only a minimum one. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §4(b), Comment e (1997) (distinguishing between state-law compliance defense and a federal claim of pre-emption). It is difficult to understand why Congress would have insisted on a compliance-with-federal-regulation precondition to the provision's applicability had it wished the Act to "save" all state-law tort actions, regardless of their potential threat to the objectives of federal safety standards promulgated under that Act. Nor does our interpretation conflict with the purpose of the saving provision, say by rendering it ineffectual. As we have previously explained, the saving provision still ...


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