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64 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 415 (1995-1996)
Automobile-Design Liability and Compliance with Federal Standards

handle is hein.journals/gwlr64 and id is 423 raw text is: Automobile-Design Liability and
Compliance with Federal Standards
Ralph Nader* & Joseph A. Page**
The proper role of auto-design product liability suits in public efforts to
reduce the number of traffic accidents and the severity of injuries once acci-
dents occur depends in part upon the allocation of responsibilities between
common law courts and federal law, as enacted by Congress and administered
by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This Article argues that the Congress which passed the original Traffic
Safety Act meant for courts to have the ability to hold manufacturers liable for
failing to do more than comply with standards promulgated under the Act,
and that nothing that subsequent Congresses have done has changed this origi-
nal understanding.
The authors criticize courts that have found that federal standards pre-
empt auto-design product liability suits when defendants assert a compliance
defense, as has often occurred when plaintiffs claim that the manufacturer
should have installed an air bag. They assert that tort law is an essential sup-
plement to federal regulation, and that as a matter of sound policy, as well as
statutory interpretation, courts should permit factflnders in product liability
suits to make their own judgments about the reasonableness or defectiveness
of a vehicle's design, whether or not federal regulators have also mandated
minimum standards relating to the same aspect of design.
Twenty-nine years ago, we criticized the reluctance of courts to apply
settled rules of tort law when automobile-accident victims claimed their inju-
ries resulted from the failure of manufacturers to exercise reasonable care in
the design of motor vehicles.1 We also pointed to section 108(c) of the Na-
tional Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Traffic Safety Act or
Act), stipulating that [c]ompliance with any Federal motor vehicle stan-
dard issued under this title does not exempt any person from any liability
under common law,'2 and argued that this language amounted to a congres-
* Member of the Connecticut and Massachusetts Bars.
** Professor, Georgetown University Law Center.
For their helpful comments on drafts of this Article, the authors express their appreciation
to Professors William N. Eskridge, Jr., Lisa Heinzerling, Roy A. Schotland, and William T.
Vukowich of the Georgetown University Law Center, Professor David G. Owen of the Univer-
sity of South Carolina School of Law, and Arthur H. Bryant of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
We are grateful to Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen, Inc., for her help.
The authors also wish to thank Susan Girardo Roy, Class of 1996, and Nathaniel E. Burney,
Class of 1997, Georgetovn University Law Center, for their research assistance.
We dedicate this Article to Thomas F. Lambert, Jr., whose scholarly chronicling of the com-
passionate contributions of tort law to American democracy has spanned nearly half a century.
1 Ralph Nader & Joseph A. Page, Automobile Design and the Judicial Process, 55 CAL L.
REv. 645 (1967).
2 The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-563,
§ 108(c), 80 Stat. 718, 723 (codified as amended at 15 U.S.C. § 1397(k) (1988 & Supp. III 1991)).
This section was subsequently recodified as § 108(k). See 15 U.S.C. § 1397(k) (1988).
March 1996 Vol. 64 No. 3

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