- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2000

The Supreme Court has been on a bender of common sense lately and its ruling Monday that automakers cannot be held liable for not installing air bags in cars before federal law required them to do so is the latest indicator that perhaps all hope is not yet lost.

Lawyers for Alexis Geier of Washington had argued that Honda Motor Co. was legally responsible for the injuries sustained by Miss Geier, then 17, when she crashed her 1987 Honda into a tree in 1992. The Honda was "defective," according to Miss Geier's lawyers, because it did not have an air bag which they argued might have prevented the injuries suffered by their client. They demanded $20 million in damages.

The problem is that air bags were not required by federal or state law for passenger cars built in 1987. Under the "passive restraint" law that governs the matter, automakers had the option of installing automatic seat belts (the ones that buckle you in by themselves as soon as you get in and close the door) or air bags. Many automakers including Honda elected to use the automatic seat belts on their lower-priced cars, such as the model driven by Miss Geier, simply because it would have been cost-prohibitive at that time to install air bags when competitors were not also required to do so.

Today, an air bag adds approximately $500 to $800 to the price of a new car; in 1987, when Miss Geier's Honda was built, air bags were still relatively new technology and thus even more costly to manufacture and install. Had Honda installed air bags in Miss Geier's Honda, it is very likely the high price of the car would have prevented Miss Geier from purchasing it in the first place. Air bag-equipped cars were available in 1987 however, they were almost exclusively found on top-of-the-line luxury models such as Mercedes and BMWs. No modestly-priced compact such as the Honda driven by Miss Geier offered air bags in 1987 and it is preposterous for her attorneys to claim that the absence of a then-new and very expensive piece of cutting-edge technology on economy cars amounts to a "defect" or constitutes "negligence." By that standard, automakers who failed to install such improvements as 4-wheel disc brakes or anti-lock technology the moment it became technologically feasible to do so cost considerations notwithstanding are also guilty of "negligence" and of purveying "defective" products.

The good news is the Supreme Court saw where all this was headed and put the kibosh on it. By a 5-4 margin, the justices dismissed Miss Geier's claim and thus ended the potential for another burst of spurious class action litigation. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the federal government had in the mid-1980s specifically rejected an "all air bag" standard that would have forced the inclusion of the devices on all passenger cars built at that time and that this fact obviated any legal culpability on the part of automakers such as Honda that did not install air bags before they were specifically required to do so. It was not until the 1998 model year that automakers were compelled by federal law to install air bags in all passenger cars.

Certainly Miss Geier's accident was tragic. But the fact that she was driving a compact car likely had more to do with the severity of her injuries than the absence of an air bag. In any event, the point is she chose to drive a small economy car without the expensive device rather than pay extra for a costly luxury model that offered it. The unhappy consequences of that decision are Miss Geier's alone and the Supreme Court was correct to rule accordingly.

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