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Torts: Implied Obstacle Preemption

Posted by Ted A. Schmidt | Jun 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

Torts: Implied Obstacle Preemption       

Dashi v. Nissan N.A., Inc, No. 1 CA-CV 18-0389 (App. Div. I, June 13 2019) (J. Weinzweig)


Plaintiff suffered serious head injuries when trying to execute an illegal U-turn in her Honda Accord on a one-way street resulting in a collision with a 2008 Nissan Rogue. She sued Nissan for its failure to install then available automatic emergency braking [AEB] systems including Forward Collision Warning [FCW] and Crash Imminent Braking [CIB]. These technologies use sensors to warn a driver about an impending crash and automatically brake the car to avoid collision. Plaintiff brought a product liability claim alleging the Nissan was unreasonably dangerous and defective.

The trial court granted defendant Nissan's motion for summary judgment finding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's [NHTSA] classification of these safety features as options and not mandatory created federal implied obstacle preemption barring plaintiff's claim. The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.

While there is a presumption against federal law preempting state law, where it is a  “clear and manifest purpose of Congress” to preempt, the doctrine applies. “Obstacle preemption” exists when a state law “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of a federal law or regulation. . . . A federal agency may trigger implied obstacle preemption when it refuses to adopt a specific equipment standard in furtherance of a federal regulatory objective, thus deliberately leaving manufacturers with equipment alternatives.”

While NHTSA has encouraged the development of advanced automatic braking technology it expressly rejected a formal petition by consumer advocates to require it in January 2017. NHTSA's primary reason for it's continued refusal to do so is it's desire to give auto manufacturers the freedom to develop these technologies with the flexibility to innovate and adapt alternative, cheaper and safer applications for different vehicle designs.  A specific rule requiring a specific technology runs contrary to this purpose.

The Department of Transportation further discouraged states from imposing automated vehicle technologies finding that Congress had given NHTSA exclusive responsibility for regulating “safety designing and performance aspects of motor vehicles while states are primarily responsible for regulating the human driver and vehicle operations.” It warned that allowing states to impose its laws on the design of automated vehicles would “create confusion, introduce barriers, and present compliance challenges.”

Allowing plaintiff's product liability action to go forward, if successful, would thwart NHTSA's thoughtful and studied approach and intent while creating a jury imposed requirement that vehicles passing through Arizona have a technology not required anywhere else.

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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