KOLBECK v. GENERAL MOTORS CORP. Civ. A. No. 88-0714.
702 F.Supp. 532 (1988)
Michael J. KOLBECK v. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, Tait Design and Machine, and Charles N. Tait.
United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania.
As Amended February 13, 1989.
Larry E. Coben, Philadelphia, Pa., for plaintiff.
Edward A. Gray, Philadelphia, Pa., Stephen J. Brogan, Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue, Washington, D.C., for defendants.
Donald Camhi, Philadelphia, Pa., for Tait Design and Machine and Charles N. Tait.
OPINION AND ORDER
HUYETT, District Judge.
Defendant General Motors Corporation ("GM") moves for partial summary judgment in this action which arises out of an automobile accident.
Plaintiff Michael J. Kolbeck ("Kolbeck") was a passenger in a 1980 Pontiac Grand Prix that collided on October 29, 1985 with an automobile operated by defendant Charles N. Tait ("Tait") which was owned by defendant Tait Design and Machine Company ("Tait Design"). On January 29, 1988, based on diversity of citizenship, GM removed this action from the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The action seeks recovery for injuries plaintiff sustained in the accident. The complaint states two counts against the defendants. Count I alleges, inter alia, that GM is liable for failing to design the Pontiac with adequate occupant restraint systems, specifically
GM, in its partial summary judgment motion, contends that federal law, specifically the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1426 (1982 & Supp. IV 1986 & West Supp.1988) [hereinafter, Safety Act], and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (1979) [hereinafter, FMVSS 208], preempt any claim based on Pennsylvania common law for GM's failure to include a passive restraint system in the 1980 Pontiac. The question of whether the Safety Act and FMVSS 208 preempt common law claims is the subject of numerous court decisions and a substantial divergence of opinion among the courts that faced the question.
The facts are simply stated. Plaintiff's vehicle, a 1980 Pontiac Grand Prix, collided with an auto driven by Charles Tait on October 29, 1985. Tait allegedly ran a red light and broadsided the Pontiac in which Kolbeck was a passenger. The force of the collision threw Kolbeck forward, and he struck a portion of the Pontiac's interior. As a result of this "second collision," Kolbeck sustained severe injuries. He is now a quadraplegic. The medical reports of the incident state that Kolbeck was not wearing the seat belts the auto was equipped with at the time of the accident. The Pontiac contained a three point lap and shoulder safety belt occupant restraint system.
GM moves for partial summary judgment on plaintiff's claims that the Pontiac was defectively designed because it was equipped with seat belts and not with a passive restraint system such as airbags, an energy absorbing interior, or automatic seat belts. Plaintiff asserts that the Pontiac was unreasonably dangerous as designed and that there were safer design alternatives available. Essentially, Kolbeck argues that compliance with FMVSS 208 is only "some evidence of due care" in designing the car. GM, on the other hand, contends that the seat belt system in the Pontiac was in full compliance with federal law. Thus, it claims that plaintiff's defective design theory is expressly or impliedly preempted by federal law.
In 1966, Congress enacted the Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1426. According to
Two specific provisions of the Safety Act are most relevant to GM's motion. Section 1392(d) provides that whenever the Secretary of Transportation
The Department of Transportation first adopted FMVSS 208, 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (1979),
The regulation itself is also complex. It provides for three restraint systems for an automobile. The "First Option" provides that a car may be equipped with a "complete passive restraint system ... that require[s] no action by the vehicle occupants." This system is designed to protect occupants from front and lateral crashes. 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S22.214.171.124. The "Second Option" permits cars with a lap belt protection system and a belt warning system, such as a buzzer or light. The buzzer or light, which is activated immediately after ignition, reminds the occupant to "fasten your seat belt." Under this option, the manufacturer is required to include a passive restraint system to protect from frontal crashes. 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S126.96.36.199. The "Third Option" provides for a lap and shoulder belt with a belt warning system. 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S188.8.131.52.
The purpose of the regulation is
49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S2.
In general, there are three ways in which a state law may be preempted by federal law. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law by including specific language in a statute. Jones v. Rath Packing Co.,
Where preemption is claimed because of a state law conflict with Congressional action, federal law preempts the conflicting state law where compliance with both the state and federal regulations is a physical impossibility, see Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul,
GM does not suggest that Congressional regulation occupies the entire field of motor vehicle safety.
GM urges that 15 U.S.C. § 1392(d) expressly preempts plaintiff's claims. That statute provides in part:
Thus, GM claims that any state regulation of safety standards, such as common law damage awards, must be "identical" to the federal regulation. In its brief, GM relegates the provision which plaintiff argues saves his passive restraint claim to a footnote.
Section 1397(c) provides a savings clause. It provides that compliance with the Safety Act does not prevent liability under the "common law." The Third Circuit explicitly stated that an automobile manufacturer is not relieved of common law liability for failing to select a safer design alternative
Further, section 1392(d) only prohibits the states from implementing safety standards of their own. It does not directly address the state common law. Baird, 654 F.Supp. at 30. To determine the effect of this failure to address the state common law, I turn to Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc.,
The courts which find express preemption of passive restraint claims reason that state common law damage awards are equivalent to state regulation and, since FMVSS 208 provides manufacturers with three options for restraint systems, a state damage award can not be used to require passive restraint systems. See Heftel v. General Motors, no. 85-1713 (D.D.C. February 23, 1988); Hughes v. Ford Motor Co.,
Further, I disagree with the emphasis these courts place on the legislative history of the Safety Act. The Vanover court concluded that a damage award from a passive restraint claim would be a state law standard "which would require the installation of airbags on the penalty of enormous liability in tort, certainly which would not be identical to the federal standard, which expressly authorizes manufacturers of automobiles to use any of several restraint systems, only one of which is airbags." 632 F.Supp. at 1097; see Cox, 646 F.Supp. at 763-64.
As discussed further below, it is not that I believe the regulatory effect of common law damage awards is irrelevant to the preemption issue. Cipollone counsels that express preemption analysis be narrowly tailored to the specific provisions of the statute in question. Accord Palmer v. Liggett Group, Inc.,
I, therefore, hold that the failure of Congress to explicitly include reference to the state common law in section 1392(d), coupled with the express reference to common law actions in the savings clause of section 1397(c), compels the conclusion that the Safety Act does not expressly preempt plaintiff's common law products liability claim. I do not believe that Congress intended to foreclose common law damage awards when it gave the Secretary of Transportation the authority to adopt FMVSS 208.
To determine whether a common law damage award for failing to include a passive restraint claim would stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full objectives of Congress, I must "examine first the purposes of the federal law and second the effect of the operation of state law on these purposes." Finberg v. Sullivan,
As stated above, the Safety Act contains an express declaration of purpose in section 1381. That section sets forth the purpose of the Safety Act as "reduc[ing] traffic accidents and deaths and injuries...." 15 U.S.C. § 1381. Reading the Safety Act as a whole, including the savings clause and the preemption provision, makes clear that the possibility of common law damage awards was viewed by Congress as consistent to some extent with the overall objective of reducing highway carnage.
GM vigorously contends that allowing plaintiff's passive restraint claim to be heard by a jury will impede another purpose of the Safety Act. That purpose, although not expressly contained in section 1381, is found in the legislative history of the Act. "[The nature] of the motor vehicle manufacturing industry in the United States requires that motor vehicle safety standards be not only strong and adequately enforced, but they be uniform throughout the country." S.Rep. No. 1301, at 12. GM finds support for this argument in statements from Dawson v. Chrysler Motors Corp.,
Id. at 962.
Admittedly, Judge Adams eloquently expresses the dilemma faced by automobile manufacturers. However, the Dawson court did permit the plaintiff to maintain his common law crashworthiness claim. Thus, to reconcile the possible conflict between the stated purpose of the Safety Act to reducing highway carnage and the interest in national uniformity of design standards, I look to the recent Supreme Court decisions concerning preemption doctrine.
In International Paper Co. v. Ouellette,
In Fidelity Federal Savings & Loan v. De La Cuesta,
Moreover, close scrutiny of these decisions reveals that a Congressional purpose gleaned from one statement in the legislative history of a statute does not provide an adequate foundation to support a finding of preemption based on "interference with the achievement of the `full purposes and objectives of Congress.'" Ouellette, 479 U.S. at 492, 107 S.Ct. at 812, quoting Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboratories,
Turning to the purposes of safety standards in general, GM argues that the effect of the existence of an explicit standard governing any specific aspect of automobile performance requirements is such that it precludes conflicting state regulation in the form of a damage award for failing to select any specific option within FMVSS 208. To address this argument, it is necessary that I determine the effect of a safety standard on a common law claim.
GM argues, based on a pronouncement of the National Highway Transportation Administration ("NHTA"), that the standards are a minimum in the "sense that a manufacturer `must not fall short' of them." The NHTA pronouncement states:
41 Fed.Reg. 2391, 2392 (1976).
As far as it goes, GM's position is consistent with the Safety Act and the NHTA statement. A manufacturer faces sanctions for falling short of the safety standards promulgated by the Secretary. 15 U.S.C. §§ 1398, 1400, 1414 (1982). However, the caselaw under the Safety Act has consistently given safety standards the effect contemplated in the legislative history of the Act discussed above. See Shipp v. General Motors Corp.,
Concerning the purposes and objectives of FMVSS 208, it contains an explicit statement of purpose as required by the Safety Act. 15 U.S.C. § 1392; S.Rep. No. 1301, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 7 (1966) ("In issuing each standard, the Secretary is expressly required to publish a statement of the basis and purpose which provides a non-technical explanation sufficient to enable the public to understand the purpose and, where appropriate, the limitation's of the standards coverage...."). Similar to the purpose of the Safety Act, the purpose of the regulation is to reduce deaths and the severity of injuries resulting from accidents "by specifying crashworthiness requirements...." 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 S2. Again, as stated above, the regulation's specification of crashworthiness requirements must be viewed as "supplementary of and in addition to" the standards established by the common law. Larsen, 391 F.2d at 506.
The purposes of safety standards and any subsidiary interest in national uniformity they are designed to further, standing alone may not provide an adequate basis to overcome the presumption against finding preemption. See Maryland v. Louisiana,
Clearly, a common law damage award may have the effect of imposing requirements contrary to federally established purposes and objectives.
Through the subsidiary objectives of promoting national uniformity, and preserving restraint system options and the common law to the extent possible, the Safety Act and FMVSS 208 are designed to achieve the Safety Act's primary goal of reducing highway deaths and injuries. Plaintiff's passive restraint claim would tip the carefully drawn balance of those purposes by foreclosing options in favor of common law damage awards. Cf. Cipollone, 789 F.2d at 187. Thus, the effect of plaintiff's passive restraint claim "interferes with the methods by which the federal statute was designed to reach [the primary] goal," Ouellette, at 494, 107 S.Ct. at 813, to an extent sufficient to overcome the presumption against preemption. On this extremely
Lastly, I address the certification of an interlocutory appeal of the question before me. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) (1982), I must find that the question subject to an interlocutory appeal is (1) a controlling question of law, (2) about which there is a substantial ground for a difference of opinion, and (3) that an immediate appeal may materially advance the ultimate disposition of the litigation. 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b); In re Cement Antitrust Litigation (MDL no. 296),
The issues raised by GM's motion for partial summary judgment in this lawsuit concern important areas of state and federal concern. My resolution of the preemption question is dispositive of plaintiff's passive restraint claims. Cf. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. American Coupon Exchange, Inc.,
As evidenced by the diversity of federal court decisions on the matter, supra at n. 1, there is a substantial ground for difference of opinion as to whether the Safety Act and FMVSS 208 preempt passive restraint claims. The cases cited demonstrate a "substantial ground for difference of opinion." "Substantial grounds for difference of opinion may be demonstrated by adducing conflicting and contradictory opinions of courts which have interpreted and ruled upon the particular question of law." Dorward v. Consolidated Rail Corp.,
To promote an expeditious and efficient resolution of this litigation once the Court of Appeals resolves the interlocutory appeal, discovery on plaintiff's claims, other than the passive restraint claims, shall continue. Discovery on the passive restraint claims shall be stayed.
An appropriate order follows.
Upon consideration of defendant General Motors Corporation's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, plaintiff Michael J. Kolbeck's response thereto, the supporting memoranda, letters, oral argument, and for the reasons stated in the attached opinion,
1. Defendant General Motors Corporation's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Summary Judgment on the "passive restraint claims" contained in Count I of the complaint shall be entered in favor of defendant General Motors Corporation and against plaintiff Michael J. Kolbeck.
2. Discovery on plaintiff's passive restraint shall be stayed pending resolution of the interlocutory appeal. Discovery on all other claims shall continue.
3. The following issue is certified for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) (1982):
Whether the provisions of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1426 (1982 & Supp. IV 1986 & West Supp.1988), and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, 49 C.F.R. § 571.208 (1979), preempt a claim based on the Pennsylvania common law of products liability for an automobile manufacturer's failure to include a passive restraint system in an automobile manufactured in compliance
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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