The 1989 regulation at issue in Williamson is no longer in effect. As of 2007, all passenger vehicles must now have lap/shoulder belts in all rear seating positions. However, there are still many passenger vehicles manufactured prior to 2007 that have only lap belts in the center and aisle seating positions. In 2008, NHTSA estimated that there were over 1 million vehicles in the United States equipped with only a lap belt in some seating position. Thus, the Williamson decision could apply to many vehicles still on the road.
The Williamson decision also applies to other types of federal safety regulations that give manufacturers different options for compliance. For example, prior to Williamson, there was a conflict in the lower courts over whether FMVSS 205 preempted claims against vehicle manufacturers for installing tempered rather than laminated glass windows. Some courts concluded that such lawsuits were preempted simply because they foreclosed one of the options permitted by FMVSS 205. (See, e.g., Morgan v. Ford Motor Co. (W. Va. 2009) 680 S.E.2d 77, 94-95 [“We … find that because the NHTSA gave manufacturers the option to choose to install either tempered glass or laminated glass in side windows of vehicles in FMVSS 205, permitting the plaintiff to proceed with a state tort action would foreclose that choice and would interfere with federal policy”]; accord Lake v. Memphis Landsmen, L.L.C. (Ct. App. Tenn. March 5, 2010) 2010 WL 891867, *7)
Other courts found these types of window glazing claims not to be preempted. (See, e.g., O’Hara v. General Motors Corp. (5 th Cir. 2007) 508 F.3d 753, 759-763; MCI Sales and Service, Inc. v. Hinton (Tex. 2010) 329 S.W.2d 475, 495-499 ( Hinton); Raley v. Hyundai Motor Co. (W.D. Okla. Jan. 14, 2010) 2010 WL 199971, *4; Spruell v. Ford Motor Co. (W.D. Ark. Apr. 1, 2008) 2008 WL 906648, *2; Burns v. Ford Motor Co. (W.D. Ark. 2008) 2008 WL 222711, *2-3)
In light of Williamson, it is clear that such claims are preempted only if providing manufacturers with a choice between tempered and laminated glass was “a significant objective of the regulation.” ( Williamson, supra, 131 S. Ct. at p. 1134) Shortly after deciding Williamson, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court that had found such a claim to be preempted and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Williamson. ( Priester v. Ford Motor Co. (2011) 131 S. Ct. 1570) In the wake of Williamson, at least one court has found that these types of window glazing claims are not preempted by FMVSS 205. ( Bernal v. Daewoo Motor America, Inc. (D. Ariz. June 2, 2011) 2011 WL 2174890, *11-14)
The Williamson decision will likely reverberate in other areas of the law as well. In particular, the Court’s clarification that a federal agency’s cost-benefit calculus is usually insufficient to preempt state tort law is a significant holding that fortifies the Court’s similar ruling in Sprietsma v. Mercury Marine (2002) 537 U.S. 51. In Sprietsma, the plaintiff sued a boat manufacturer for failure to install a propeller guard. Before the boat was manufactured, however, the Coast Guard had made a carefully considered decision not to mandate boat propeller guards based on studies and “available data” regarding the costs, technical feasibility, and relative safety benefits. ( Id. at pp. 61-62, 66-67) Because the Coast Guard’s cost-benefit analysis did “not convey an ‘authoritative message’ of a federal policy against propeller guards” ( ibid.), the Supreme Court found that the plaintiff’s tort claim was not preempted. In Williamson, Mazda argued that Sprietsma was inapplicable because it involved an agency’s decision not to adopt any safety regulation in the area, whereas Williamson involved an agency decision to adopt a safety regulation on rear seatbelts, but not to mandate lap/shoulder belts for some seating positions. Although the Williamson opinion curiously did not mention Sprietsma, it nevertheless confirms that cost-benefit decisions usually do not have preemptive effect even if the agency has regulated in the area.
Taken together, Williamson and Sprietsma should make it difficult for manufacturers to argue implied obstacle preemption based on a federal agency’s decision not to mandate a safety device solely for cost-benefit reasons. The mere fact that a federal agency has made its own cost-benefit judgment does not necessarily establish that it “sought to forbid common-law tort suits in which a judge or jury might reach a different conclusion.” ( Williamson, supra, 131 S. Ct. at 1139) This principle could become important in a wide variety of other types of products liability cases involving federally regulated products.