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Gloria Doomes, &C v. Best Transit Corp.

October 18, 2011

GLORIA DOOMES, &C., APPELLANT,
v.
BEST TRANSIT CORP., ET AL., DEFENDANTS, WARRICK INDUSTRIES, INC., &C., RESPONDENT. ANA JIMINIAN, &C., APPELLANT,
v.
BEST TRANSIT CORP., ET AL., DEFENDANTS, WARRICK INDUSTRIES, INC., &C., RESPONDENT. KELLI RIVERA, APPELLANT,
v.
BEST TRANSIT CORP., ET AL., DEFENDANTS, WARRICK INDUSTRIES, INC., &C., RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jones, J.:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

In these personal injury actions arising from a single-vehicle bus accident, two questions are presented for our review. First, whether plaintiffs' seatbelt claims, seeking to hold defendant liable for failure to install passenger seatbelts on the bus, were preempted by federal regulations promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Second, whether plaintiffs' weight distribution claim, alleging that the negligent modification of the bus' chassis altered the weight balance, steering, and handling of the bus, was supported by legally sufficient evidence. We hold that plaintiffs' seatbelt claims are not preempted by federal regulation, and that plaintiffs' weight distribution claim is not supported by legally sufficient evidence.

I

On April 23, 1994, a bus carrying approximately 21 passengers was returning from a visit to Raybrook State Correctional Facility. The bus was equipped with a seatbelt for the driver, but not for the passengers. During the trip along the New York State Thruway, the driver, defendant Wagner M. Alcivar, "dozed off" while the bus was traveling approximately 60 miles per hour. The bus veered across the highway from the right-hand lane into the passing lane, and encountered a median strip and a sloping embankment. Alcivar awakened, but his belated attempts to regain control of the bus were futile as the vehicle rolled over several times, injuring many of the passengers.

Plaintiffs Gloria Doomes, individually and as mother and natural guardian of two infants; Ana Jiminian; Kelly Rivera; Sharon Rodriguez; and Heriberto Santiago commenced actions against defendants Best Transit Corp. (Best), the owner of the bus; Ford Motor Company (Ford), the manufacturer of the chassis and cab of the bus; Warrick Industries, Inc. (Warrick), the manufacturer who completed the construction of the bus; J&R Tours, the prior owner of the bus; and Alcivar, the bus driver.*fn1

Plaintiffs alleged that the absence of passenger seatbelts and the improper weight distribution of the bus, created by the negligent modification of the bus' chassis, caused the injuries.

Prior to trial, Supreme Court dismissed the claims against J&R Tours, plaintiffs settled with Ford, and Alcivar was deported. Warrick moved to preclude any evidence that the bus was defective or that it was negligent due to a lack of seatbelts on the ground that FMVSS 208 (49 CFR 571.208), which did not require the installation of passenger seatbelts, preempted any claims of liability for failure to install such seatbelts. Supreme Court reserved decision on the motion.

Following trial, a jury determined that Best and Alcivar were negligent in the operation of the bus, and that Warrick defectively manufactured the bus and breached the warranty of fitness for ordinary purposes by modifying the chassis and altering the weight distribution of the bus. It also determined that Best negligently operated the bus without passenger seatbelts and Warrick breached the warranty of fitness for ordinary purposes by failing to install seatbelts. These failures were deemed substantial factors in causing the accident, and the absence of seatbelts was determined as a substantial factor in causing injury to all plaintiffs. Consequently, with respect to fault for the accident, the jury apportioned 60% liability to Best and Alcivar, and 40% liability to Warrick. As for fault for the lack of passenger seatbelts, the jury assigned Best 20% liability and Warrick 80% liability.*fn2 The defendants moved to set aside the verdict pursuant to CPLR 4404 and Supreme Court granted the motion to the extent of ordering a new trial on damages unless plaintiffs stipulated to a reduction in damages. Plaintiffs so stipulated, and Supreme Court also reduced awards for past pain and suffering pursuant to General Obligations Law § 15-108.*fn3

The Appellate Division reversed the judgments and dismissed the complaints as against Warrick (68 AD3d 504 [1stDept 2009]). The court held the seatbelts claims preempted, reasoning that these claims conflicted with the federal goal of establishing a uniform regulatory scheme for transit safety. With respect to plaintiffs' weight distribution claim, the court determined that the evidence was legally insufficient to establish that Warrick's modification of the chassis was a proximate cause of the accident.

This Court granted plaintiffs leave to appeal, and we now reverse.

II

Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution (US Const, art VI, cl [2]), preemption analysis requires us "to ascertain the intent of Congress" (Matter of People v Applied Card Sys., Inc., 11 NY3d 105, 113 [2008] quoting California Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v Guerra, 479 US 272, 280 [1987]). Express preemptive intent is discerned from the plain language of a statutory provision (see Balbuena v IDR Realty LLC, 6 NY3d 338, 356 [2006]). Implied preemption may be found in two distinct ways when either "the Federal legislation is so comprehensive in its scope that it is inferable that Congress wished fully to occupy the field of its subject matter (field preemption), or because State law conflicts with the Federal law" (Guice v Schwab & Co., 89 NY2d 31, 39 [1996] [internal quotation marks omitted]).

Plaintiffs contend that the Appellate Division erred in finding preemption because the relevant portions of FMVSS 208, compelling only the inclusion of a driver seatbelt, neither reflects a pervasive scheme of regulation nor makes compliance with federal and state standards impossible. Moreover, it is argued that the United States Supreme Court's recent decision in Williamson v Mazda (__ US __, 131 S Ct 1131 [2011]) disposes of this appeal in plaintiffs' favor. Warrick claims that the statute affords manufacturers the option to choose among different protective devices for installation at the driver's seat, and this availability of discretion places this appeal squarely within the holding of Geier v American Honda Motor Co., Inc. (529 US 861 [2000]).

First turning to express preemption, the pertinent statutory clause of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act) provides that:

"When a motor vehicle safety standard is in effect under this chapter, a State or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe or continue in effect a standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment only if the standard is identical to the standard prescribed under this chapter. However, the United State Government, a State, or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe a standard for a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment obtained for its own use that imposes a higher performance requirement than that required by the otherwise applicable standard under this chapter" (49 USC § 30103 [b]).

In Geier, the Supreme Court considered the preemptive effect of a pre-1994 edition of the above preemption clause that similarly limited the authority of states to prescribe motor vehicle safety standards (see formerly 15 USC ยง 1392 [d]). However, rather than parsing the precise significance of the plain language of the provision, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress did not intend the preemption clause to be construed so broadly as to preclude ...


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