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Justices Refuse to Shield Ford Motor Co. from Liability Lawsuit

January 16, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for a product-liability trial against Ford Motor Co. for selling a car without an air bag before federal law required such equipment.

The court, acting without comment in a New Hampshire case, refused to shield Ford from being sued by the mother of a young woman killed in a 1991 crash.

The lawsuit says the accident victim’s 1988 Ford Escort was defectively designed because it lacked a driver-side air bag.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court last year became the first state supreme court in the nation to allow such a lawsuit.

At issue was whether such state-law liability is pre-empted by federal safety laws and regulations. The justices were told there are 83 federal and state court rulings barring such liability, and 37 court rulings allowing it.

Tuesday’s action did little to clear up the confusion caused by those conflicting rulings.

Rebecca Anne Tebbetts was killed in a one-car accident in Holderness, N.H., on May 15, 1991. Her car was equipped with a motorized, automatic shoulder belt and a manual lap belt, both of which she was wearing when her car ran off the road and crashed into a tree.

Her mother, Jo-Ann Tebbetts of Gilford, N.H., sued Ford in a state court in 1993.

A trial judge threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and federal safety regulations precluded any liability under state law.

The safety features in Tebbetts’ car complied with the federal law and regulations, which did not require all 1988 cars to contain air bags.

The state Supreme Court revived the product-liability lawsuit against Ford, concluding that Congress meant to make the Safety Act ``supplementary and in addition to the common law of negligence and product liability.″

Ford then sought help from the nation’s highest court, which rejected the automaker’s appeal.

``Ford and other auto manufacturers delayed installing air bags in cars many years after the technology was feasible,″ Edgar McKean, a lawyer for Mrs. Tebbetts, said Tuesday. ``We are elated that the Tebbetts (family) will finally have the opportunity to hold Ford liable for refusing to install air bags sooner.″

Comment from Ford was not immediately available.

Philip Hutchinson, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said he was disappointed by the court’s action.

``There should be pre-emption,″ he said. ``If would be chaotic to have 50 states decide they are going to jump into the game.″

The New Hampshire court relied heavily on a 1992 Supreme Court decision that said cigarette makers can be sued under state laws for allegedly deceiving the public about the dangers of smoking.

That ruling said federal laws requiring warning labels on cigarette packages do not shield the companies from all lawsuits based on state personal-injury laws.

And the justices last year ruled that large-truck makers can be sued under state law for failing to install anti-lock brakes even though they are not required under current federal safety rules.

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