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Torts: Federal Preemption of State Product Liability Tort Claim for Absence of Automatic Emergency Braking in Automobile

Posted by Ted A. Schmidt | Mar 04, 2022 | 0 Comments

Varela v. FCA US LLC, No CV-20-0157-PR (March 1, 2022) (J. Montgomery) 

Plaintiff sued the manufacturer of a 2014 Jeep Cherokee that rear-ended her at high speed, injuring her and killing her 4-year-old daughter. She alleged the failure to provide Automatic Emergency Braking [AEB] as standard equipment on the Cherokee constituted negligence, design of a defective product, defective product warning and wrongful death under Arizona law. 

Chrysler moved to dismiss on the basis the claim was preempted pursuant to implied obstacle preemption.  The trial court granted the motion finding the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [Agency] had demonstrated an intent to preempt this field while “incentivizing” manufacturers to innovate and install this evolving safety technology for cars.

The Arizona Court of Appeal reversed finding no express intention by the Agency to preempt the field. The court of appeals attempted to distinguish its decision from that of another panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals where preemption was found to exist. See  Dashi v. Nissan North America, Inc., 247 Ariz. 56(App. 2019). The Arizona Supreme Court accepted review to resolve the conflict between panels and reversed and remanded the case to the trial court while affirming and vacating in part the opinion of the court of appeals.

Preemption exists when the federal government explicitly state it intends to preempt any state laws in an area or where it implies it intends such preemption. Implied preemption exists where the scope of a federal law indicates that Congress intends to occupy the field exclusively or it is impossible to comply with both the state and federal law on the subject or where a state law stands “as an obstacle to fulfilling the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” 

The Arizona Supreme Court emphasized that implied preemption must be strictly construed and narrowly applied as overreaching application of this doctrine can result in serious impingement on important State rights. Articulating a strong position on the sanctity of State rights the court meticulously reviewed the lengthy record of the Agency which Chrysler claimed supported implied obstacle preemption here and found no implied preemption. To the contrary, the court found that allowing an Arizona state tort claim here was in no way inconsistent with the Agency pronouncements and indeed likely stood to further the Agency's goal that manufacturers innovate and apply this safety technology in the design of all cars.

About the Author

Ted A. Schmidt

Ted's early career as a trial attorney began on the other side of the fence, in the offices of a major insurance defense firm. It was there that Ted acquired the experience, the skills and the special insight into defense strategy that have served him so well in the field of personal injury law. Notable among his successful verdicts was the landmark Sparks vs. Republic National Life Insurance Company case, a $4.5 million award to Ted's client. To this day, it is the defining case for insurance bad faith, and yet it is only one of several other multi-million dollar jury judgments won by Ted during his career. He is certified by the State Bar of Arizona as a specialist in "wrongful death and bodily injury litigation".


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