High court lets stand ruling over air bags N.H. court had held Ford could be sued for failing to install the device

January 17, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sending automakers a hint that they may face legal trouble for putting seat belts but not air bags in cars, the Supreme Court voted yesterday to allow Ford Motor Co. to be sued on the theory that cars are unsafe without the extra protection.

The justices gave no explanation in turning down an appeal by Ford Motor Co., which was supported by the auto industry.

Are bagless cars unsafe?

Ford's appeal asked for a clear ruling against claims that cars without driver's-side air bags are unsafe.

Although more than 130 decisions have gone against those claims, there have been nearly 40 that permitted them to go forward.

Consumer advocates say the tide in the courts has begun recently to turn in favor of letting such lawsuits by passengers or their families go to trial. But auto industry officials say it is too soon to tell if a new trend has begun.

The industry argued that only the Supreme Court could stop the spreading dispute in lower courts over manufacturers' liability for choosing seat belts, but not air bags, for older-model cars.

Under a 1991 federal law, 95 percent of each automaker's cars made for the model year that begins this fall must have air bags on the driver's side and the front passenger's side. In the next model year, all autos must have air bags.

Meanwhile, millions of cars remain in operation without air bags. Those cars satisfy existing regulations, which do not require air bags.

With no federal requirement for air bags, lawyers have relied on state laws against defective products to press claims when cars without air bags are involved in crashes that cause injury, death or property loss.

A faulty design

The theory of those cases is that cars are faulty in design without air bags.

For years, most such cases were rejected. Two federal court rulings in Maryland, in 1986 and 1989, said those cases could not proceed because state-law claims would interfere with federal control of auto safety. And in 1990, the Supreme Court voted to leave intact lower-court rulings that barred such lawsuits.

The legal atmosphere has changed since then. The court, in a 1992 ruling in a cigarette lawsuit, made clear that state courts have broad authority to handle cases even when some federal laws may have bearing on the claims.

Arthur C. Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm here, said yesterday that most of the rulings against no-air-bag lawsuits came before 1992.

He described yesterday's Supreme Court order as "a message that these cases are permitted and are going to go to trial."

Mr. Bryant handled the lawsuit that will be tried as a result of the court order: a claim that a 1988 Ford Escort was not crashworthy because it had no air bag.

Rebecca Anne Tebbetts of Holderness, N.H., was killed when the Escort she was driving hit a rock, swerved off the road, and ran into a tree.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in September that Ford and a local auto dealer could be sued in state court by the Tebbetts family under that state's defective products law.

C. Dean McGrath Jr., an attorney with the American Association of Automobile Manufacturers here, said the industry was disappointed that the Supreme Court had refused to review the New Hampshire case.

"We think there's a lot of confusion out there [in lower courts], and this was a good opportunity to clarify it," Mr. McGrath said. "At some point, they're going to have to deal with this issue."

The Supreme Court, in other actions yesterday, voted to leave intact a lower-court ruling that prison inmates who are disabled are not protected by federal laws that bar discrimination against the handicapped, and refused to rule on the constitutionality of the procedures the federal government uses to enforce its ban on indecent broadcasts on radio and television.

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