June 29, 2004 – DaimlerChrysler air bag class action gets the go-ahead

The Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal of a national class action against DaimlerChrysler over minivan airbags.

Oklahoma's top court had ruled that DaimlerChrysler Corp. could face a lawsuit by up to 1 million owners of 1996 and 1997 minivans, in Oklahoma court but under a Michigan law.

Lawyers for two van owners had filed the lawsuit, claiming that front passenger seat air bags in the minivans deploy in low-speed accidents and with excessive force, potentially hurting children or small adult passengers.

A judge who supported giving the case national class-action status noted that it would cost $300 to $500 to replace air bags in each vehicle, and that no individual van owner would find an attorney willing to handle such a small case.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last year that the lawsuit could go forward, under Michigan law because that's where DaimlerChrysler's North American headquarters is based.

In its appeal, DaimlerChrysler argued that the Oklahoma Supreme Court violated the commerce and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution by approving the class. The automaker said class certification occurred only because the lower court improperly presumed that Michigan breach-of-contract law would apply, rather than law of each car owner's home state.

The subject of class actions -- where one person or a small group represents the interests of an entire class of people - has been a major one in Congress. Senate Republicans are pushing for legislation that would move more of the lawsuits out of state courts, where juries are often more generous to plaintiffs, and into federal courts, where awards typically are smaller.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, says the passenger air bags deploy too forcefully in 1996 and 1997 Chrysler minivans, including the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan.

Minivan owners Sheryl Ysbrand and Mary Cooney say the company's decision to install the air bags has caused death or serious injury in a number of cases. "Neither technology nor governmental regulation required it to use the defective, overpowered air bag it chose," Ysbrand and Cooney said in a court filing. Their group represents only those people whose air bags haven't deployed and caused injuries.

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