In SPRIETSMA, DECEASED v. MERCURY MARINE, A DIVISION OF BRUNSWICK CORP., (No. 01-706. Argued October 15, 2002--Decided December 3, 2002), the Supreme Court of Illinois rejected the lower court's rationale for dismissing the complaint, but affirmed the judgement on implied pre-emption grounds. Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, phrasing the legal question as follows: "The question presented is whether a state common-law tort action seeking damages from the manufacturer of an outboard motor is pre-empted either by the enactment of the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971, 46 U. S. C. §§4301-4311 (FBSA, 1971 Act, or Act), or by the decision of the Coast Guard in 1990 not to promulgate a regulation requiring propeller guards on motorboats."
First the facts, as exactly described in the decision. Petitioner's wife was killed in a boating accident when she was struck by the propeller of an outboard motor manufactured by respondent, Mercury Marine, a division of Brunswick Corporation. In petitioner's subsequent common-law tort action in Illinois state court, he claimed that Brunswick's motor was unreasonably dangerous because, among other things, it was not protected by a propeller guard. The trial court dismissed the complaint, and the intermediate court affirmed, finding the action expressly pre-empted by the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 (FBSA or Act).
Now the holdings. Since the lower court justified its holding on the basis of an express pre-emption in the FBSA, Justice Stevens begins his explanation by reviewing the FBSA. Holding that the FBSA does not pre-empt state common-law claims such as petitioner's, Stevens refers to Section 10 of the FBSA Act, which sets forth the purported express pre-emption clause, to explain this holding. According to §40's saving clause, compliance with the Act or standards, regulations, or orders prescribed under the Act does not relieve a person from liability at common law or under state law. The reasoning gets interesting here, as the Court tries to show how the lack of an "express" pre-emption by the FBSA on common-law tort-claims. I quote:
"Section 10's express pre-emption clause--which applies to "a [state or local] law or regulation"--is most naturally read as not encompassing common-law claims for two reasons. First, the article "a" implies a discreteness that is not present in common law. Second, because "a word is known by the company it keeps," Gustafson v. Alloyd Co., 513 U. S. 561, 575, the terms "law" and "regulation" used together indicate that Congress only pre-empted positive enactments. The Act's saving clause buttresses this conclusion. It assumes that there are some significant number of common-law liability cases to save, and §10's language permits a narrow reading excluding common-law actions. See Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U. S. 861, 868. And the contrast between its general reference to "liability at common law" and §10's more specific and detailed description of what is pre-empted--including an exception for state regulations addressing "uniquely hazardous conditions"--indicates that §10 was drafted to pre-empt performance standards and equipment requirements imposed by statute or regulation. This interpretation does not produce anomalous results. It would have been perfectly rational for Congress not to pre-empt common-law claims, which necessarily perform an important remedial role in compensating accident victims."
The Court also explains why the Coast Guard's 1990 decision not to regulate propeller guards fails to pre-empt petitioner's claims. That decision left applicable propeller guard law exactly the same as it had been before the subcommittee began its investigation. In the words of the court, "A Coast Guard decision not to regulate a particular aspect of boating safety is fully consistent with an intent to preserve state regulatory authority pending adoption of specific federal standards".
The Court then shows why the FBSA's statutory scheme implicitly pre-empt petitioner's claims. As Ray v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 435 U. S. 151, and United States v. Locke, 529 U. S. 89, distinguished, the Act does not require the Coast Guard to set forth comprehensive regulations covering every aspect of recreational boat safety and design; nor must the Coast Guard certify the acceptability of every recreational boat subject to its jurisdiction. Stevens writes: "Even if the FBSA could be interpreted as expressly occupying the field of safety regulation of recreational boats with respect to state positive laws and regulations, it does not convey a clear and manifest intent to completely occupy the field so as to foreclose state common-law remedies. This Court's conclusion that the Act's express pre-emption clause does not cover common-law claims suggests the opposite intent."