States Balk at Automakers’ Liability Shield Under New Roof Standard

December 27, 2005

Twenty-six state attorneys general, concerned about a federal proposal to strengthen the roofs of motor vehicles, have urged the government to abandon language that could prevent people from suing automakers.

The state officials took issue with part of a proposed regulation that would bar plaintiffs from suing automakers under state product-liability laws if their vehicles’ roofs meet new federal standards.

Questioning the legal grounds for the provision, they argued it would infringe on states’ rights and would shift injured motorists’ medical costs to states.

“State governments and the federal government will have to cover millions of dollars in health care costs which they will pass along to taxpayers, costs that, by all rights, should be the responsibility of manufacturers,” the attorneys general wrote.

The letter was written by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, and North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican, and signed by 24 others. Nineteen Democrats and seven Republicans signed onto the letter.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed the rule in August requiring roofs to handle direct pressure of 2.5 times the vehicle weight, an increase from the current rule of 1.5 times the weight. The regulation, which would cover large sport utility vehicles and pickups for the first time, is expected to be completed next year.

“The roof crush standard is a proposal and we’ll certainly take all comments into account when we write the final regulation,” said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.

The agency has pointed to a 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. that said federal regulation of automobile safety pre-empts, or blocks, lawsuits in which people invoke state product-liability laws and contend automakers should have installed air bags.

But groups opposing the provision say the 5-4 decision focused narrowly on air bag technology and regulation and should not have a broader impact on other vehicle defects.

The proposal has prompted concern in Congress. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat, questioned the pre-emption language in a letter last month.

And Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski urged the agency last month to reconsider the plan because it might bar access to the courts for injured motorists while burdening states with medical costs.

“State common law is often the only recourse for seriously injured victims of car crashes,” wrote Kulongoski, a Democrat.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said in a letter last week that it opposed the proposal “in the strongest terms possible,” citing concerns about the litigation provision.

With rollover crashes killing more than 10,000 people a year, about one-third of traffic fatalities, the issue has been closely watched. Safety groups say the regulation should be much stronger and argue that well over half the vehicles already comply with the standard.

NHTSA estimates nearly 600 fatalities and more than 800 serious injuries a year involve people wearing seat belts who come into contact with a collapsed roof during a rollover crash. It estimates the regulation would save 13 to 44 lives a year.

The letter was signed by AGs from the following states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington state, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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