Three law professors discuss the new “roof-crush rule” and why it’s a bad idea
First they try to wipe out lawsuits over prescription drugs. Now they're trying to eliminate roof-crush lawsuits... What's next? All product liability lawsuits?
The decades-long push to require airbags in automobiles is a case study in how safety improvements can travel a long and winding road through the regulatory process. A new standard for the strength of automobile roofs is now nearing the end of its own seemingly endless trek through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But unlike the airbag rule, which has saved thousands of lives since implementation, NHTSA's "roof-crush" rule will have little impact in the short-term, and could, in the long run, end up slowing down the march toward safer automobiles.
The reason the roof-crush rule could backfire is that the NHTSA plans to use it to undercut one of the most effective mechanisms for encouraging manufacturers to build safer automobiles: lawsuits brought by accident victims alleging faulty design and construction. According to the NHTSA, the new rule will "pre-empt" future lawsuits -- tort actions, as lawyers call them -- about roof strength.
Although the Supreme Court once found that an NHTSA regulation did pre-empt state tort law given the particular circumstances, NHTSA has taken that as an invitation to repeatedly assert that new regulations pre-empt accident victims' right to take manufacturers to court. It is part of a much larger pattern during the Bush administration, a sort of "stealth tort reform," whereby regulatory agencies shield industry from the harms defective products cause.