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In twist, Supreme Court allows seatbelt lawsuit

generic, seatbelt AP Photo

One of the big raps on the Roberts Court is that it's too sympathetic to Big Business. Today, we got a decision that counters that storyline.

Ever since the Supreme Court made a conservative turn in 2006, critics have pointed to rulings that shut the courthouse door to the little guy--especially the little guy who's trying to sue a giant corporation, such as a manufacturer of medical devices or drugs. In those cases, the Court has said product liability lawsuits are barred under federal law. The rationale is that since federal regulators had approved the devices and the drugs in the first place, the companies aren't liable for defective designs.

What critics don't mention is that some of the liberal justices have been on board with some of those decisions favoring the corporations. And today, the Court showed once again that simplistic narratives aren't always accurate. In a unanimous decision, the justices paved the way for a lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp., rejecting the company's argument that it should not be subjected to lawsuits over its failure to install shoulder belts in the back seats of its minivans.

The case came about in 2002, when a Mazda minivan crashed and killed a passenger in the back seat. The girl was wearing a lap-only seat belt--the 1993 van didn't have shoulder belts for the back seat.

Her parents, who were in the front seat, were wearing lap AND shoulder belts, and they survived. They sued Mazda, saying the automaker should have put lap and shoulder belts in the back seat too, and that if the van had those seats, their daughter would have survived the crash.

Mazda fought the suit, saying its minivans met all federal safety regulations in effect at the time, and so the family's lawsuit could not go forward. A California appeals court agreed.

But the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, said those federal safety regulations don't bar lawsuits over lap-only seat belts. Justice Breyer said there was no proof the government wanted to preempt these types of lawsuits back then or today--and he noted that the Administration had argued the lawsuits should go forward.

The regulations have changed since the 2002 crash, and new cars now have lap and shoulder belts in the back seats. But older vehicles on the roads--and the administration says there are about 1 million of them--have the lap-only belts.

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