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2011 could prove to be a big year for those injured in car accidents. Early this year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the landmark case Williamson v. Mazda Motor of America, Inc. Under the new holding, victims of car crashes could potentially have legal recourse against car companies that cut corners to save on costs, even if in doing so they were technically in compliance with federal safety guidelines.

Design Comporting With Government Standards No Bar to Lawsuit

In 2002, the Williamson family was traveling in a 1993 Mazda minivan when their vehicle was struck head-on by a Jeep Wrangler. All three members of the Williamson family had been buckled up. But, while Delbert and Alexa Williamson were strapped in with lap-and-shoulder belt configurations, Thanh Williamson was in the middle of the second row of seats, equipped by Mazda with a lap-only belt.

Delbert and Alexa both survived the crash; Thanh was killed. The Williamson family, along with Thanh's estate, filed suit against Mazda, claiming that the failure to install a lap-and-shoulder belt on rear aisle seats resulted in Thanh's death.

From the beginning, the suit faced an uphill battle. It was dismissed by a trial court, and an appellate court affirmed that result. Why? At the time the van was manufactured, a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, although requiring the full protection provided by lap-and-should restraints on seats next to a vehicle's door or frame, allowed automakers to choose between lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts on rear inner seats.

The lower courts decided that allowing a suit for the failure to install a lap-and-shoulder belt in the rear aisle seat would effectively deprive manufacturers of the choice allowed for in federal regulations. Then, the Supreme Court stepped in.

Every Justice who participated in the decision concurred in the result: the regulation permitting lap-only or lap-and-shoulder belts in rear middle seats did not bar the Williamsons' lawsuit.

Unlike other safety-feature choices granted to automakers in federal guidelines, there was no element of improving technology or developing better systems in terms of seatbelts; the science was clear that lap-and-shoulder belts were safer. Since the choice between lap belts and lap-and-shoulder belts only amounted to a cost consideration, there was no indication that the Department of Transportation intended to preempt lawsuits arising out of the exercise of the choice.

In the end, the Williamsons' suit was finally allowed to move forward.

What the Decision Means To Injured Parties

The Williamson decision potentially has broad implications: it means that automakers will not be protected from lawsuits simply because they followed federal guidelines. Those injured in car accidents will potentially be able to hold auto companies responsible for deficiencies in vehicle safety features that were merely meant to lower manufacturing costs.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, contact an attorney today to ensure you recover the compensation you deserve.

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