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United States Supreme Court rules on products liability case

The highest court in the country, the United States Supreme Court, recently ruled on a products liability case regarding the use of lap-type seat belts in motor vehicles. In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that federal safety regulations that allowed motor vehicle manufacturers to choose the type of seat belt used in back center seats does not protect motor vehicle manufacturers from lawsuits filed by passengers injured by the use of the lap-type seat belts.

In the past federal regulations required lap and shoulder belts in front seats and rear-door seats, but the regulations did not require lap and shoulder belts for rear-center seats and allowed car manufacturers to decide between lap and shoulder belts or lap only belts. At the time car manufacturers worried about the cost of installing lap and shoulder belts for the rear-center seats of vehicles. In explaining its opinion, the Supreme Court said that the former regulation was a floor and not a ceiling for safety meaning that car manufacturers could be held to higher standards by individual state safety standards.

The decision comes from a lawsuit filed on the behalf of a mother who died in a car accident while wearing a lap-type seat belt in the center back seat of a Mazda mini-van. The woman's husband was driving the family's 1993 Mazda MPV minivan down a highway in August 2002 when a vehicle towed behind a motor home came loose, sailed across the highway and struck the family's minivan head-on. The husband and the couple's daughter, who were both wearing lap and shoulder seat belts, survived the crash, but the mother died from injuries caused by the use of the lap-type belt. The force of the crash bent the woman's body together and caused fatal internal injuries. The Supreme Court's decision allows the family to go forward with its lawsuit against Mazda Motor of America.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor, "Supreme Court allows lawsuits against automakers over seat belt design," Warren Richey, 2/23/11

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