This case is before the Court on a certified question from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. 1
Doyle v. Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft, 81 F3d 139 (11th Cir. 1996). The question certified is:
When an automobile manufacturer sells an automobile to a Georgia citizen and the automobile is in compliance with the National Automobile Safety Act, 2
does Georgia law preclude a personal injury product liability claim?
The answer to this question is no. Georgia common law permits a Georgia citizen to sue an automobile manufacturer despite the manufacturer's compliance with the standards established by the National Automobile Safety Act. As we stated in Banks v. ICI Americas, 3
"compliance with industry-wide practices, state of the art, or federal regulations does not eliminate conclusively [a manufacturer's] liability for its design of allegedly defective products."
The Eleventh Circuit's question arises from a defective products case brought by Victoria and Duffey Doyle in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. While Victoria Doyle was driving her new 1989 Volkswagen Jetta on August 18, 1989, she was struck in the rear by another vehicle, and as a result Ms. Doyle sustained severe injuries to her right breast. Ms. Doyle obtained expert opinion that her injuries were caused by the Jetta's shoulder belt and absence of a lap belt, that is, that without a lap belt to absorb a portion of the impact force, a majority of that force was focused on Ms. Doyle's right breast. The Jetta was manufactured by Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft (Volkswagen AG) and imported and marketed by Volkswagen of America, Inc. (Volkswagen USA). Both the Jetta's driver's seat and front passenger seat were designed and equipped with automatic shoulder belts, but no lap belts. 4
Instead of a lap belt, the Jetta utilized: (1) a torso shoulder belt with automatic locking retractor; (2) an energy absorbing knee bolster; (3) a specially designed anti-submarining seat; and (4) outboard seat belt anchorage. This fully passive restraint system was authorized under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208. 5
The Doyles' complaint set out three theories of liability: negligence, strict liability, and breach of implied warranty of fitness. Both the Doyles and the Volkswagen defendants filed motions for partial summary judgment. Defendants alleged that because the Jetta seat belt system complied with federal motor vehicle safety standards, they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because either: (1) they had no duty under Georgia law to exceed federal standards; or (2) plaintiffs' common law claims were preempted by the federal standards.
The district court concluded that the Jetta's seat belt system complied with the applicable federal standards despite the absence of a lap belt. The court also concluded that Honda Motor Co. v. Kimbrel 6
precluded recovery for negligently creating a defective condition when the vehicle manufacturer is in compliance with federal regulations. Thus, the defendants could not be liable under Georgia law for the absence of a lap belt. 7
Accordingly, the district court denied relief to plaintiffs and granted the defendants' motion for partial summary judgment. The parties then filed a joint statement agreeing that the district court's ruling effectively precluded all of the plaintiffs' claims, and the district court entered judgment for the defendants.
The Eleventh Circuit agreed that the Jetta seat belt system complied with applicable federal standards governing automobile restraints. 8
It was uncertain, however, whether the district court correctly interpreted Georgia law when it relied on Kimbrel to preclude the Doyles from pursuing their common-law actions. 9
The Eleventh Circuit certified its question after finding in Banks v. ICI Americas "persuasive data" that this Court might render a decision contrary to Kimbrel. 10
The Court of Appeals decision in Kimbrel was based on the premise that the Georgia standard of duty with respect to occupant protection and restraints did not exceed Standard 208, and for that reason the absence of passive restraints or airbags could not be considered a defective condition so as to establish a breach of duty on the part of an automobile manufacturer. The Volkswagen defendants argue that Kimbrel is not in conflict with this Court's decision in Banks, because Kimbrel represents only an exception to the Banks rule that compliance with federal or industry regulations is not conclusive proof of lack of liability. However, the argument pales in light of the paramount purpose of the Safety Act, that is, to reduce traffic injuries and save lives. 11
Such an "exception" would impede the achievement of that goal because it would permit what has been stated to be only minimum standards, 12
as a matter of law, to represent our state's standard of care. That outcome would "have the perverse effect of granting complete immunity from design defect liability to an entire industry. . . ." 13
The Kimbrel doctrine predated our decision in Banks and is inconsistent with a risk-utility analysis. 14
Under the risk-utility test, compliance with federal standards or regulations is a factor for the jury to consider in deciding the question of reasonableness, that is, whether the product design selected was a reasonable one from among the feasible choices of which the manufacturer was aware or should have been aware. 15
It does not render a manufacturer's choice of design immune from liability. 16
That is not to say that evidence of such compliance is not significant, for it is. But, instead of acting as an impenetrable shield from liability, compliance, more appropriately, is to be a piece of the evidentiary puzzle. 17
The focus of the Safety Act is to reduce deaths and injuries from automotive accidents by promoting and enhancing safer automobile design. To that end, we determine that our state common law permits its citizens to pursue a personal injury product liability claim against an automobile manufacturer even if the automobile is in compliance with the Safety Act. 18
This decision will not make the manufacturer an insurer of its product, for there is no duty to design an accident-proof vehicle. All we do today is affirm that proof of compliance with federal standards or regulations will not bar manufacturer liability for design defect as a matter of law.
FLETCHER, Presiding Justice, dissenting.
Because it is unreasonable under the risk-utility analysis to deem a manufacturer negligent for choosing of one of three safety restraint options authorized under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, I dissent.
In Banks v. ICI Americas 19
this Court adopted the risk-utility analysis for a design-defect products liability action. In a footnote, the court "note[d] that a manufacturer's proof of compliance with industry-wide practices, state of the art, or federal regulations does not eliminate conclusively its liability for its design of allegedly defective products." 20
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, which is involved in this case, was not applicable in Banks. Therefore, Banks is merely a starting point for the question presented in this case.
In Banks this Court reaffirmed the principle that Georgia products liability law does not render a manufacturer an insurer against all possible injuries from its product. 21
This Court also stated that the concept of "reasonableness" is inherent in the risk-utility analysis. This concept of reasonableness includes whether the manufacturer acted reasonably in choosing a particular design and the reasonableness of the burden on the manufacturer to take steps necessary to eliminate any risk. 22
At the time Doyle's automobile was manufactured, Standard 208 required car makers to exercise one of three options in installing passive restraint devices. This Court is bound by the Eleventh Circuit's determination that Volkswagen complied fully with one of these options in installing a passive restraint in Doyle's vehicle. Doyle's allegations are not that the option chosen was defectively designed or manufactured, but rather that Volkswagen was negligent because it failed to choose another option. When considering the concept of reasonableness in this context, it would be absurd and unfair to allow a jury to say Volkswagen acted unreasonably in choosing one particular design, when it was required to choose one of three and authorized to choose the one it did.
Additionally, recognizing Doyle's claim in this case would result in countless suits and contradictory verdicts. In each case, car makers would face allegations that a plaintiff's injuries would have been less if passive restraints were used instead of manual restraints, or ff airbags were used instead of seatbelts, or if manual restraints were used instead of airbags. The conflicting verdicts from such litigation would not encourage the manufacture of safer cars. It would simply place a huge and unreasonable burden on car makers.
Finding that Georgia law would not recognize a claim based on a manufacturer's choice of one restraint over another authorized by Standard 208 is also supported by the Georgia legislation in this area. OCGA 40-8-76.1
requires that while a passenger vehicle is being operated on a public road all front seat occupants must be restrained by seatbelts approved under Standard 208. This express provision demonstrates Some deference by the legislature to federal standards with regard to passenger restraint devices. Finally, an appellate court of this state 23
and other states considering this issue have also concluded that within the limited field covered by Standard 208, compliance with the federal standard precludes a common-law action, even under the risk-utility analysis. 24
For these reasons I would hold that compliance with Standard 208 precludes a products liability claim premised merely on a manufacturer's choice of one option under Standard 208 over another.
Butler, Wooten, Overby, Cheeley & Pearson, Albert M. Pearson III, Keith A. Pittman, Joshua Sacks, Samuel W. Oates, Jr., Franklin, Taulbee, Rushing, Bunce & Brogdon, Elizabeth F. Bunce, King & Spalding, Chilton D. Varner, Steven J. Estep, Webb, Tanner & Powell, Ralph L. Taylor III, Cathey & Strain, Dennis T. Cathey, James E. Staples, Jr., David A. Sleppy, amici curiae.