67 The Alabama Lawyer 119 (2006). Preemption in Automotive Crashworthiness Cases: Post-Geier v. American Honda Motor Company.


The Alabama Lawyer


67 The Alabama Lawyer 119 (2006).

Preemption in Automotive Crashworthiness Cases: Post-Geier v. American Honda Motor Company

Preemption in Automotive Crashworthiness Cases: Post-Geier v. American Honda Motor CompanyBY TINA M. PARKER In May 2000, the United States Supreme Court discussed the potential preemptive effect of federal regulations upon state law product liability claims in Geier v. American Honda Motor Company, 529 U.S. 861, 120 S. Ct. 1913 (May 22, 2000). This article discusses the Geier decision's impact on the law of preemption in automotive crashworthiness cases.(fn1)

History of Preemption

Federal preemption is firmly embedded in Article VI of the United States Constitution, referred to as the Supremacy Clause. The Supremacy Clause provides that federal law "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. Under the Supremacy Clause, the states are bound by obligations imposed by the United States Constitution and by federal statutes. U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2; see also Alden v. Maine, 144 L. Ed. 636, 119 S. Ct. 2240 (1999); Printz v. United States, 138 L. Ed. 2d 914 (1997). The Supremacy Clause accords all federal rights, whether created by treaty, statute or regulation, priority when they conflict with state law. Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600, 60 L. Ed. 2d 508, 99 S. Ct. 1905 (1979).

Federal regulations pertaining to automotive crashworthiness are Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) promulgated by the U.S. Department of Transportation under the authority of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, originally 15 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (1988 ed.), now codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 3010130169 (1994 & Supp. II 1998)); see also Schwartz v. Volvo North America Corp., 554 So.2d 927 (Ala. 1989).

In order to preempt state law, federal regulations must be properly adopted in accordance with statutory authorization. New York v. FCC, 486 U.S. 7, 100 L. Ed. 2d 48, 108 S. Ct. 1637 (1988); De Canas v. Bica, 424 U.S. 351, 47 L. Ed. 2d 43, 96 S. Ct. 933 (1976). Further, the federal law or regulation has to be in effect at the time a defendant allegedly breaches state law.(fn2)

Modern application of the preemption doctrine allows federal law to preempt state law under three circumstances:

(1) Express Preemption: Congress explicitly defines the extent to which its enactments preempt state law;

(2) Implied Field Preemption: State law regulates conduct in a field that Congress intended the federal government to occupy exclusively; and

(3) Implied Conflict Preemption: State law actually conflicts with federal law.(fn3)

However, every preemption analysis should begin with the presumption that states are independent sovereigns in the federal system, and their historic police powers are not to be superseded by a federal act unless it was the "clear and manifest purpose of Congress."

A. Express Preemption

Courts should start their preemption analysis by interpreting whether a statutory provision expressly preempts state law. Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 516; Medtronic v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470 (1996). Express preemption occurs when a federal statute includes a clause that explicitly withdraws powers from the states. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. State Energy Conservation & Dev. Comm'n, 461 U.S. 190, 203 (1983).

B. Implied Preemption

The fact that a state cause of action is not expressly preempted does not foreclose the possibility of implied preemption. Freightliner Corp., 115 S. Ct. at 1488; Lady, supra;

Geier, 120 S. Ct. at 1919; King, supra. Federal preemption can be "implied" by (1) "field preemption" if the federal law is so entrenched in an area of law that it impliedly preempts the whole field of law, and/or (2) "conflict preemption" if the state law conflicts with federal law. In determining the scope of preemption, courts are initially guided by two presumptions:

(1) Congress does not cavalierly preempt state law causes of action; and

(2) The purpose of Congress is the "ultimate touchstone" in every preemption analysis.(fn4)

"Implied field preemption," the second type, occurs when courts determine that federal statutory and regulatory structure so wholly occupies the particular field that Congress must have intended to preempt all state lawmaking power in that field. English, 496 U.S. at 79; Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947). Generally, this is an extension of the rule that presumption against preemption does not apply when the state regulates in an area where there has been a history of significant federal presence.(fn5) "Implied field preemption" is very limited in products liability personal injury actions because states in their police powers traditionally have the authority to "legislate as to the protection of the lives, limbs, health, comfort, and quiet of all persons." Medtronic, 518 U.S. at 485 (1996)(citing Rice, 331 U.S. at 230).

Closely related to implied field preemption is the doctrine of "complete preemption," which allows a defendant to remove a plaintiff's state law claims to federal court under the legal theory that the federal law's preemptive force is so powerful that it entirely displaces any state cause of action converting a state law complaint into one stating a federal claim. Complete preemption, also called "super preemption," only occurs in three limited areas:

(1) Claims under the Labor Management Relations Act by a labor union against an employer;

(2) ERISA suits by a beneficiary; and

(3) Native-American land grant rights.(fn6)

"Implied conflict preemption" is found when the federal enactment actually conflicts with state law, occurring when compliance with both the state and federal law is a physical impossibility, or when state law is an obstacle to accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.(fn7)

State laws and federal regulations on the same subject may stand together where the state law is not in conflict with, and may be construed consistently with, federal regulations and in keeping with their purpose. Buck v. California, 343 U.S. 99, 96 L. Ed. 775, 72 S. Ct. 502 (1952). Therefore, in deciding whether there is implied preemption, a court should look to the federal statute's structure and purpose to see if it contains intent to preempt. San Diego Unified Port Dist. V. Gianturco, 651 F.2d 1306 (9th Cir. 1981), cert. den. 455 U.S. 1000, 71 L. Ed. 2d 866, 102 S. Ct. 1631 (1982). Congress's "intent" is discerned from the language of the statute, the statutory framework surrounding it and the structure and the purpose of the statute as a whole, including the way that Congress intended the statute and its surrounding regulatory scheme to affect business, consumers and the law. Medtronic, 518 U.S. at 485 (citing Rice, 331 U.S. at 230); King, supra.

The Geier Decision

In Geier, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident and brought a...

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