Obstacles Can Be Good: South Carolina Supreme Court Affirms Trial Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment on Preemption Grounds in Products Case

Obstacles can be good, especially when they represent preemption defenses against state products liability claims. As we reported yesterday, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a decision that Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 205 preempts a state claim. Standard 205 deals with glass used in vehicles. The lawsuit sprung from an automobile accident in which an occupant of a Ford F-150 was thrown from the cab. The personal representative filed suit, alleging the Ford should have used glass that would not shatter and would “retain occupants inside the vehicle.” Ford argued that Regulation 205 permitted discretion in which glass to use, and, therefore, the state law claim was preempted.

The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting Ford summary judgment. The legal issue was whether Regulation 205 merely sets a minimum safety floor (no preemption) or permits the manufacturer a range of choice in the production of its vehicles (preemption). Regulation 205 begins as follows:

S1. Scope. This standard specifies requirements for glazing materials for use in motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment.
S2.Purpose. The purpose of this standard is to reduce injuries resulting from impact to glazing surfaces, to ensure a necessary degree of transparency in motor vehicle windows for driver visibility, and to minimize the possibility of occupants being thrown through the vehicle windows in collisions.

The court noted that Regulation 205 does not specify standards for which glass to use, but instead it references a safety code (ANS Z26) developed by the American National Standards Institute, a nonprofit entity. The code allows two different types of glass: 1) a tempered glass that shatters into dull pieces (safer for restrained occupants) and 2) a laminated glass that does not shatter (safer for unrestrained occupants by decreasing risk of ejection.

Important to the Court’s analysis was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s withdrawal of a proposed rulemaking. The NHTSA contemplated authoring rules in the early 1990s requiring laminated glass to be used for side windows in vehicles. After studying the matter, the NHTSA withdrew its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, and cited its study that the use of laminated glass increased the chances of injury to restrained occupants. See Notice of Withdrawal, 67 Fed. Reg. 41,365. The Court then examined three recent opinions from the Fifth Circuit, the West Virginia Supreme court, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals examining the potential preemption of Regulation 205. The state court opinions were driven by Geier v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861 (2000), which found that Regulation 208 had preemptive effect. Following the state court decisions, it seems that the NHTSA’s withdrawal was the crucial factor:

In issuing the notice of withdrawal, NHTSA declined to modify Regulation 205 and require advanced glazing. Thus, the notice of withdrawal kept Regulation 205 intact, thereby preserving the manufacturer’s option to use tempered glass on side windows.

Because the federal government authorized that choice, Regulation 205 must preempt a state claim. Note, however, that the Court footnoted the Foreword to ANS Z26, which does not support a finding of preemption, but the Foreword “is not part of” ANS Z26.

The Fifth Circuit decision in O’Hara v. General Motors Corp., 508 F.3d 753 (2007) went the other way. O’Hara reasoned that the NHTSA’s notice of withdrawal did not operate as a rejection of laminate glass in side windows. Moreover, the language of Regulation 208 “strongly supports the conclusion that it expresses a federal policy,” while Regulation 205 did not. Therefore, Regulation 205 was best understood as a minimum safety standard, leaving states free to regulate via tort.

The South Carolina Supreme Court footnoted multiple cases in which courts have dealt with the preemptive effect of Regulation 205. Although it seems both sides have valid arguments, there is the underlying current of rewarding risky behavior in not finding preemption. That is, laminate glass can protect unrestrained occupants from being ejected from a vehicle. Does a court really want to reward a risk-taking plaintiff by denying a defendant the defense of preemption. O’Hara involved the claims of a minor, so perhaps she was a more sympathetic plaintiff. At any rate, be aware of the split of authority, and look for the United States Supreme Court to take a Regulation 205 case on certiorari.

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