New York’s Highest Court Rejects Preemption Defense in Bus/Seatbelt Case
On October 18, 2011, the Court of Appeals issued its decision in Doomes v. Best Transit Corp., 2011 N.Y. LEXIS 3081. New York’s highest court reversed a decision of the Appellate Division, First Department, which had dismissed the complaints of multiple plaintiffs injured as passengers in a bus accident.
Plaintiffs alleged, in part, that the absence of passenger seatbelts caused the injuries sustained by the plaintiffs. A trial court jury agreed and awarded multi-million dollar damage awards.
The intermediate appellate court reversed the jury awards and dismissed the complaints, holding that the seatbelts claims conflicted with the federal goal of establishing a uniform regulatory scheme for transit safety, and were therefore preempted.
In its reinstatement of plaintiffs’ claims, the Court of Appeals examined principles of express and implied preemption. Express preemptive intent is discerned from the plain language of a statutory provision. Implied preemption may be found in two ways, (1) when the federal legislation is so comprehensive that it fully occupies the field of its subject matter, or (2) when state law conflicts with the federal law.
The Court of Appeals first evaluated the express preemption claim. In rejecting express preemption, the court pointed to language in the Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Act permitting states to enact standards imposing higher performance requirements than those required in the act, and stating that compliance with a federal motor vehicle safety standard does not exempt a person from liability at common law.
Turning to implied preemption, the Court of Appeals held that the relevant federal motor vehicle safety standard, while providing detailed requirements for bus driver restraints, is silent regarding bus passenger seatbelts. For this reason, the federal legislation was found not to fully occupy the field of passenger restraint subject matter. The court also found that there was not such a conflict between the federal legislation and the state common law as to support a finding of implied preemption.
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