NHTSA Rule Pre-Empts Seatbelt Injury Claims

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has dealt another blow to potential personal injury lawsuits with another pre-emption provision.

Pre-emption provisions and clauses are generally bad news because they automatically cause certain classes of people who have been hurt to be rejected as plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits. Simply put, pre-emption protects big businesses against lawsuits and leaves injured people without legal recourse.

According to a report by the National Law Journal, the NHTSA has included a pre-emption provision in a new rule governing seat belt safety. Because of this pre-emption in the rule, drivers and passengers who are injured by seat belts in car accidents will be unable to sue and collect damages for their injuries.

NHTSA issued the final "designated seating" rule on October 8, 2008. The new rule revises the definition of "designated seating position."

The "designated seating position" is used to determine the appropriate number of seat belts that are required in each particular vehicle that is currently manufactured. The new final rule by NHTSA does away with the exclusion of auxiliary seats from the definition. This means that going forward; all new vehicles must include appropriate levels of crash protection, i.e. seatbelts, in all seating locations that are intended to be used while the vehicle is in motion.

At the same time that the NHTSA injected this provision into the new rule, it included language that pre-empts state personal injury claims related to injuries caused by seat belts.

Basically, NHTSA threw automobile manufacturers another cookie. And it is another extremely large, cost saving, liability reducing cookie.

While it only makes sense that automobile manufacturers should include a seat belt for each seat in a vehicle, it was not previously required. So for doing something that they should have reasonably been expected to do anyway, the automobile manufacturers will now not be subjected to pesky personal injury lawsuits when their seatbelts cause injuries to passengers.

The good news is that appropriate seat belts will now be included with any new vehicle purchase. The bad news is that these seat belts do not necessarily need to be safe enough to eliminate injuries to passengers. It's quite a trade-off.

Joan Claybrook, who is a former administrator of NHTSA and now president of Public Citizen, said that the NHTSA has revised safety standards with pre-emption clauses included 20 times in the past three years.

Claybrook says that the fear of costly personal injury lawsuits is one of the biggest incentives for automobile manufacturers to build safer vehicles. However, she notes the obvious - that the NHTSA is doing a fairly good job at giving these manufacturers blanket immunity against liability for injuries related to their products. This means that more defective vehicles will be manufactured and fewer will be recalled, according to Claybrook.

Another noted side effect of the NHTSA pre-emption craze is that the general public will be less aware of injuries caused by defective vehicles.

Millions of people who suffer injuries in car accidents each year will only have NHTSA to thank when their personal injury claims are rejected due to pre-emption.


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