Elbert P. Tuttle Courthouse, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Atlanta (Photo: Rebecca Breyer/ALM)

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has revived two of three claims included in a wrongful death suit against a company that manufactures automotive seat belts, ruling that it did not have to be “actively involved” in the devices’ design to still face liability claims.

The unpublished ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr., who dismissed the case last year in ruling on summary judgment that Autoliv Japan Ltd., which makes seat-belt assemblies for Mazda vehicles, was not sufficiently involved in designing and testing the belt at issue to maintain liability claims.   

But, while Georgia’s defective product law does shield “mere product sellers” from liability, that provision “expressly does not apply to actual manufacturers such as Autoliv,” according to the March 16 opinion by the panel, which was composed of Judges Charles Wilson and Joel Dubina and Judge Richard Goldberg of the U.S. Court of International Trade, sitting by designation.

The ruling allowed the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and punitive damages to go forward but agreed with Duffey that a failure to warn claim could not be supported because it was “not plausibly pled” in the complaint.

Plaintiff Jamie Lee Andrews is represented by Butler Wooten & Peak partners Jim Butler and Tedra Cannella and Ballard & Feagle partners William Ballard and Gregory Feagle. They declined to comment on the ruling.

Alston & Bird partner Doug Scribner, who represents Autoliv with senior associate Jenny Mendelsohn, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case began with a single-car accident when Micah Andrews’ 2005 Mazda 3 ran off I-575 in 2013. Andrews was wearing his seat belt, but his head hit the steering column, the air bag failed to deploy, and he died from his injuries.

Andrews’ widow and estate administrator initially sued Mazda, air bag-maker Bosch LLC and Autoliv in Fulton County State Court, but the case was soon removed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Bosch and Mazda settled, leaving only Autoliv as a defendant.

In dismissing the case in January 2017, Duffey’s order said Autoliv had supplied the seat belt assembly based on Mazda’s specifications and had offered several different samples with different retractor settings.

Mazda worked with Autoliv in selecting and testing the design it wanted in the cars, but “the evidence does not support that it was actively involved in the design or specification” of the seat belt, Duffey wrote then.

In reinstating the negligence and punitive damages claims, the appellate panel wrote that “Autoliv manufactured seatbelt components in the deceased’s Mazda and plaintiff alleges that those components were defective when sold.”

“Autoliv can be held liable under [state product liability law] if a component it manufactured was defective ‘when sold by the manufacturer’ and if the component’s ‘condition when sold is the proximate cause of the injury sustained,” the opinion said, citing the code section.

“That said,” the opinion continued, “even if plaintiff were required to establish that Autoliv was ‘actively involved’ in the design of the seatbelt assembly in order to show that Autoliv can be held liable under [the law], the record reflects a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment on this issue.”