WASHINGTON — Calling it a “first step” towards filing a legal challenge, a group of consumer and trial lawyer organizations have filed a petition asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to reconsider a final rule on designated seating positions in vehicles because it includes language that would give vehicle manufacturers immunity from state tort suits related to seatbelt use.

The petition for reconsideration was filed by the American Association for Justice (AAJ), Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America-New Jersey, and Consumer Attorneys of California.

The groups’ petition challenges language included in the final rule on designated seating positions that, they contend, defies congressional intent by essentially prohibiting consumers from legally claiming they were unable to wear a seatbelt because of lack of sufficient number of seatbelts or the seatbelt’s location in the vehicle. The organizations are asking NHTSA to issue a new final rule that removes the “preemption” language from both the preamble and the text of the final rule.

Previously, NHTSA placed the preemption language in the preamble, which generally is acknowledged to be advisory in nature only. But placement of the language in the text gives it force of law. The final rule takes effect on Dec. 8.

“We hope NHTSA will reconsider their final rule and eliminate the language that attempts to curtail citizens’ basic right to hold vehicle manufacturers accountable through the civil justice system,” said AAJ President Les Weisbrod. “NHTSA’s seatbelt rule attempts to strip consumers of their basic right — the right to civil justice when they have been harmed by a defective product.”

The “designated seating position” rule had two main objectives: to revise the definition of “designated seating position” to determine the number of seatbelts that are required in a particular vehicle, and to eliminate 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.

“President Bush must not be allowed to do even more damage to the American public, on his way out of office, by trampling on the rights of victims of faulty seatbelt designs,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.