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Product Liability - Federal Preemption Of State Product Liability Law

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For the most part, product liability law is governed by state law. Occasionally, the federal government will move to preempt an entire area of product liability law from state control in order to protect a certain group of manufacturers. An example of this is the Federal Biomaterials Access Assurance Act (21 U.S.C.A. §§ 1601-1606), a 1998 law that protects suppliers of materials for implantable medical devices from "unwarranted" suits by laying out the permissible basis of biomaterials supplier liability. Under the act, a biomaterials supplier may only be held liable in three situations: (1) when the supplier is a manufacturer of medical implants under the act; (2) when the supplier is a seller of medical implants; or (3) when the supplier sold materials that did not meet contractual specifications of the manufacturer.

More problematically, a court will have to decide whether an area of product liability is affected by a federal law that does not expressly preempt product liability suits but may indicate the federal government wished such suits to be preempted. For implied PREEMPTION, the Supreme Court has recognized two subcategories: field pre-emption and conflict pre-emption. Under field pre-emption, a state statute is superceded when a federal statute wholly occupies a particular field and takes away state power to supplement it. Conflict pre-emption occurs when compliance with both the federal and state statute is impossible, and the state law stands as an obstacle to the legislative objectives of Congress.

An example of conflict preemption was Geier v. American Honda Motor, Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S. Ct. 1913, 146 L. Ed. 2d 914, (2000), in which the Court ruled against an injured motorist who brought a defective design action against the automobile manufacturer under District of Columbia tort law, contending that the manufacturer was negligent in failing to equip the automobile with a driver's side airbag. The Court ruled the law suit was preempted in that it actually conflicted with DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION (DOT) standard, promulgated under National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requiring manufacturers to place driver's side airbags in some but not all 1987 automobiles. The Court noted the rule of state law imposing duty to install airbag would have presented an obstacle to variety and mix of safety devices and gradual passive restraint phase-in sought by the DOT standard.

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