The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) once again has launched a "pre-emptive" strike against state personal injury suits by inserting a pre-emption provision in a new rule governing seat belt safety, according to consumer and trial lawyer groups.
The final rule, issued Thursday, is known as the "designated seating position" rule. It revises the definition of "designated seating position" to determine the number of seat belts that are required in a particular vehicle, and it eliminates the exclusion of auxiliary seats from the definition so that all seating locations intended to be used while a vehicle is in motion would provide the appropriate levels of crash protection.
The rule also contains language that would specifically pre-empt state tort claims related to seat belt injuries.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator of NHTSA, said the agency has issued safety standards with such pre-emption language 20 times in the past three years.
"The fear of lawsuits is one of the greatest incentives automakers have to build stronger and safer vehicles," she said. "For NHTSA to suggest that automakers should have blanket immunity from consumer liability lawsuits means that more defective vehicles will be manufactured, fewer will be recalled, the public will have less information about injury causation and more families will needlessly lose loved ones on our roads each day.
Lee Weisbrod, president of the trial lawyers' American Association of Justice, said the pre-emption language is both in the preamble and the body of the rule.
"Before, when the language was only in the preamble, the agency was giving an advisory opinion," he said, adding the language in the text is contrary to congressional intent.
He noted that the agency recently notified Congress that it needs an additional two months to issue a final rule on roof crush safety, which has not been updated in 35 years. The process to issue that new rule was begun in 2005.