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From Products Liability Law Daily, August 17, 2017

Nonprofits sue DOT, NHTSA for failure to promulgate rear seat safety belt warning system

By Colleen Kave, J.D.

Kids and Cars, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded to protect children in and around motor vehicles, and the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group dedicated to consumer auto safety, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the failure of the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to comply with mandated deadlines to promulgate a safety standard requiring a seat belt warning system for all designated rear seating positions in vehicles. The plaintiffs seek an order requiring DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate rulemaking on such a safety standard immediately (Kids and Cars, Inc. v. Chao, August 16, 2017).

Background. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and disability for pediatric and adolescent children, and children frequently ride in the back seats of motor vehicles, the complaint asserted. According to a 2017 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, unrestrained rear-seat occupants are nearly eight times as likely to sustain serious injuries in a crash as restrained rear-seat occupants. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208 requires the driver’s seating position to be equipped with a seat belt warning system that activates when the driver’s seat belt is not buckled; however, a safety standard requiring a comparable warning if rear-seat passengers are not wearing seat belts does not exist.

In June 2012, Congress passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), a funding and authorization bill governing federal surface transportation spending. This legislation provided in part that the Secretary of Transportation had until October 1, 2014, to initiate a rulemaking to amend FMVSS 208 to provide a safety belt use warning system for designated seating positions in the rear seat. Moreover, a final rule addressing a rear seat safety belt warning system was to be issued no later than October 1, 2015. To date, the Secretary has not published a proposed rule for the standard mandated by the statute, and DOT has not met either of the explicit caveats provided in the Act to excuse such failure.

Claims. The two groups claim that by failing to initiate a rulemaking on the seat belt reminder standard for rear seating positions on or around October 1, 2014, DOT and NHTSA violated their statutory obligation to do so and, accordingly, have unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed taking mandatory actions within the meaning of Section 706(1) of the Administrative Procedure Act. Further, by failing to issue a final rule implementing a seat belt reminder standard for all seating positions on or about October 1, 2015, DOT and NHTSA violated their statutory obligation to do so and, accordingly, have unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed taking mandatory actions within the meaning of that APA section.

Finally, plaintiffs claim that DOT’s and NHTSA’s failure to initiate and finalize the seat belt reminder standard as required by MAP-21 has caused them injury. Specifically, Kids and Cars, Inc. alleges that its ability to carry out its mission to protect individuals, particularly children, from preventable deaths and injuries that occur because they are not wearing seat belts in the back seats of motor vehicles involved in crashes has been impaired, and that it has been deprived of the beneficial fruits of its actions and resources expended to advocate and support legislation to achieve this safety standard. The Center for Auto Safety claims that DOT’s failure to promulgate the standard required by Congress more than five years ago is directly responsible for the continuing risk of injury and death to passengers in those seating positions and other passengers in the vehicle.

Relief sought. Accordingly, the two organizations asked the court to declare that the agencies’ failure to meet their mandatory duty to comply with the statutory deadlines set forth in MAP-21 constitutes agency action unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed under the APA; require defendants to immediately initiate a rulemaking on the safety standard for seat belt; require defendants to promulgate a final rule on the safety standard for seat belt reminders in all seating positions within one year from the date they initiate the mandated rulemaking; and award plaintiffs attorneys’ fees, costs, and any other relief the court deems just and proper.

The case is No. 1: 17-cv-01660.

Attorneys: Katherine A. Meyer (Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP) for Kids and Cars Inc.

Companies: Kids and Cars Inc.; Center for Auto Safety

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