The Lawletter Vol 36 No 5
The New York Court of Appeals recently addressed the issue of federal preemption in a case brought by bus passengers alleging that the bus in which they had been riding was defective because it did not have passenger seatbelts. See Doomes v. Best Transit Corp., N.Y. Slip Op. 07256, 2011 WL 4916002 (N.Y. Oct. 18, 2011) (subject to revision before publication). The plaintiffs were injured when the bus veered across the highway and rolled over several times after the driver fell asleep and lost control of the vehicle. The passengers brought a products liability action against the manufacturer who had completed the construction of the bus, asserting that the defendant had breached the warranty of fitness for ordinary purposes by failing to install passenger seatbelts in the bus. The bus had a seatbelt for the driver, as required by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards ("FMVSS"). The FMVSS do not, however, require passenger seatbelts in a bus. The manufacturer appealed a verdict in the plaintiffs' favor, arguing that the state law claims grounded upon the absence of passenger seatbelts were preempted by the federal regulations. The appellate division reversed the judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, and the court of appeals granted the plaintiffs leave to appeal. The court of appeals reversed the judgment of the appellate division on the question of preemption.
The court of appeals noted that state tort claims may be preempted by federal law by either express or implied preemption. As to express preemption, the court noted that preemptive intent is discerned from the plain language of a statute. Implied preemption, by contrast, may be found either when the federal legislation is so comprehensive in scope that it is inferable that Congress wished to fully occupy the field of its subject matter, or when state law conflicts with the federal law. Such a conflict may be found (1) when it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements, or (2) when state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress. The court found that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act ("the Act"), under which the FMVSS were preempted, did not expressly preempt state products liability law, because the Act's saving clause, in conjunction with the statute's preemptive provision, permitted the maintenance of common-law claims.
As to implied preemption, the court held that the plaintiffs' state law claims were not preempted under the principle of field preemption, because the Act was not intended to encompass the entire scheme of motor vehicle safety guidelines. Regarding conflict preemption, the court held that the requirement under the FMVSS for driver seatbelts in buses does not preempt claims that a bus was defective because it did not come equipped with passenger seatbelts. According to the court, the relevant regulations are "absolutely silent" as to a requirement for passenger seatbelts. Thus, it is not impossible for a bus manufacturer to comply with both the federal standard, requiring a driver's seatbelt, and the principle articulated in the plaintiffs' claims, that seatbelts should have been installed for passengers, as well.