Supreme Court to hear cases on conflict of laws

Authority over air bags, operations of oil tankers is central to 2 disputes

September 11, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a decade of avoiding the issue, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide a nationwide legal dispute over accidents involving cars not equipped with air bags.

The issue is whether auto manufacturers may be sued by accident victims under state law on the theory that a car without a driver's side air bag is unsafe to operate.

Millions of cars built before the 1998 model year, before automakers were required by federal rules to have air bags, are still on the road. Consequently, lawsuits over accidents involving those cars are likely for years to come -- if the court allows them.

More than three weeks before the justices open their new term, they began accepting new cases for review. The early start apparently was designed to give lawyers more time to prepare for hearings in the term that starts Oct. 4.

In the air bag case, the court chose to face the issue -- which it had bypassed at least a half-dozen times -- in a case involving a January 1992 auto crash in Washington, D.C., that injured a young woman driving a Honda Accord that lacked an air bag.

The car spun out of control on a curve and ran into a tree.

Auto manufacturers insist that federal auto safety rules are the only ones they should have to obey, and those rules -- as they existed before the 1998 model year -- did not require air bags.

Beginning with the 1998 model year, all new passenger cars have been required to have an air bag on both the driver's and passenger's sides of the front seat. Earlier, air bags were an option under federal rules but not a requirement.

The Honda in the 1992 auto accident was a 1987 model. The 17-year-old driver, Alexis Geier, was wearing a lap belt and shoulder strap, but she still suffered serious head injuries. A lawsuit she and her parents filed contended that she would not have had those injuries if the Honda had had an air bag.

A federal appeals court ruled in February that allowing her to proceed with the lawsuit claiming that the car was unsafe would clash with the federal policy at the time, which was that a car was not unsafe without air bags so long as it had seat belts.

Four other federal appeals courts have taken the same position.

But five state supreme courts have disagreed, allowing accident victims to sue for the manufacturers' failure to install air bags. Those contradictory results apparently led the Supreme Court to step in to resolve the issue.

A ruling is likely sometime next year.

The court also took on another dispute over competing federal and state laws, agreeing to decide whether states retain any authority to control oil tanker operations in their waters, with the intent of preventing oil spills.

The federal government and an organization of tanker owners contend that federal laws and regulations have taken over the regulation of oil tanker operations, so no room is left for the states to enforce their own separate rules.

In 1995, Washington state adopted a series of controls on tankers operating in Puget Sound. Those rules were based on a 1991 law the state passed after the disastrous oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 involving the tanker Exxon Valdez.

In Maryland, tankers in the Chesapeake Bay are required to offer proof that they obey federal tanker regulations. State officials had pondered the idea of adopting state regulations, but they decided that the federal controls were more complete, according to John S. Verrico, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Verrico said that Maryland, besides insisting on obedience to federal rules, reserves the right to order inspections of vessels that it believes are damaged or are likely to cause an oil spill because of structural damage.

According to Verrico, tankers in the bay must show that they have passed a Coast Guard inspection, that they have a Coast Guard-approved plan of response to an oil spill, and that they have the capacity to detect and keep under control any oil spills or leaks.

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