If reason is the life of the law, the New Hampshire Supreme Court compromised it Sept. 19 in permitting a product liability trial in a case involving the death of a woman whose car met federal safety standards but wasn't equipped or required to be fitted with an airbag. The woman, whose family claims she might have lived if her 1989 Ford Escort had an airbag, was killed in 1991 when she crashed into a tree. The crash occurred a year after the federal mandate phasing in air bag installation on automobiles beginning with the 1990 model year took effect. Nearly 10 million 1989 model cars did not have airbags.
The mandate does not require air bags to be installed on all cars until 1998.
At the time of the accident, the car was equipped with an automatic shoulder restraint and a seat belt - the standard, required federal safety items when the vehicle was produced. The woman was wearing both when she hit the tree.
The New Hampshire decision, said to be the first of its kind by a state Supreme Court, is extraordinary in scope. It not only suggests that compliance with established federal product safety standards isn't sufficient to protect manufacturers against unwarranted product liability lawsuits, it asserts a supremacy of state law over federal statutes.
Neither argument makes sense.