In a ruling that could expose auto makers to billions of dollars in damages in suits over alleged seat belt and air bag defects, a California appeals court has said that Hyundai Motor America was not protected from litigation in a 1990 case simply because its seat belts met federal standards.
Acting on a separate issue in the same case, however, the appellate panel reversed a $15-million judgment against Hyundai and sent the case back to Los Angeles Superior Court for a new trial.
While favoring the new trial, Fountain Valley-based Hyundai has requested the California Supreme Court to "depublish" the appellate decision because of its position against preemption, the doctrine that federal law overrides state law. If the bid succeeds, the decision would remain in effect in the Hyundai case but could not be cited as precedent in other cases.
Hyundai has been joined in its bid to suppress the October decision by Carson-based Nissan North America Inc., the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. and the Product Liability Advisory Council, a business-backed lobbying organization.
None of the companies or trade groups would comment, but industry sources said auto makers are concerned that the decision could be used by other courts as precedent in hundreds of auto air bag cases now pending throughout the country.
In as many as 200 cases, plaintiffs have argued that car makers should be held liable for injuries they received while driving cars that were not equipped with air bags even though the devices were available at the time.
While federal law made air bags one of three passive-restraint systems that could have been used, the suits argue that car makers should have installed air bags because they were known to provide additional protection. The two other systems relied on seat belts.
Federal preemption has been the auto industry's first line of defense in the air bag cases as well as in other safety-related liability cases. But the appellate court's unanimous decision in the Hyundai case strikes at the heart of this defense.
If it is widely cited, the ruling "certainly strengthens the anti-preemption arguments," said product liability specialist Steven Barnett, a law professor at UC Berkeley.
In the air bag cases, he said, "state courts have the right to say that even though the federal rules didn't require an air bag, a reasonable manufacturer should have done it anyhow."
The decision is the first in the nation to apply a year-old U.S. Supreme Court case, Medtronics vs. Lohr, to an automotive restraints case. The high court said in the Medtronics case that a person injured by a medical device could sue in state court even if the device was required and regulated by federal law.
In the Hyundai case, a Lakewood youth, Adam Ketchum, sustained severe head injuries in the 1990 accident while wearing the seat belt supplied with his family's 1988 Hyundai Excel.