Thirteen-year-old Gabriel Miranda Jr. fell to his death after opening the rear emergency exit of a school bus while it was travelling at highway speed. Plaintiffs brought products liability suit under Texas Law on the basis that the manufacturer was liable for the failure to include an electronic locking mechanism that would have prevented a person from opening the exit when the bus is travelling at highway speed. Both the District Court and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal found conflict preemption.
FMVSS 217 provides that “each school bus emergency exit door shall allow manual release of the door by a single person, from both inside and outside the passenger compartment…. The release mechanism shall operate without the use of remote controls or tools, and notwithstanding any failure of the vehicle’s power system. When the release mechanism is not in the position that causes an emergency exit door to be closed and the vehicle’s ignition is in the “on” position, a continuous warning sound shall be audible at the driver’s seating position and in the vicinity of the emergency exit door.”
Plaintiffs attempt to avoid the Regulation by arguing that the prohibition on the use of remote controls or tools applies only to the “release mechanism”, which they view as a separate mechanical device from their proposed lock. But, on its face, the “manual release” requirement in the first sentence speaks to the “door”, not just the “release mechanism”. Further, a different section makes clear that upon “release” the door must be capable of being manually opened. Thus, a single person must be able to manually operate the release mechanism — resulting in the door being “released” — so that a person can manually extend the door.
“Nor are we persuaded by plaintiffs’ argument that the prefatory clause – ‘when tested under the conditions of S6’ – means that the manual release requirement only needs to be met when the bus is stationary during compliance testing. The term ‘stationary’ is not listed among the S6 conditions. Rather, the relevant compliance testing conditions in S6 are that ‘the vehicle is on a flat, horizontal surface,’ the internal and external temperature is 70° to 85° Fahrenheit, and the internal fixtures of the bus are set up for normal use. Strictly speaking, a moving bus would be ‘under the conditions of S6’ as long as it is on a flat surface, at the appropriate temperature, and fitted for ordinary use. Moreover, even if we read ‘stationary’ into the S6 conditions, plaintiffs’ construction of the regulation would render compliance testing pointless. If we adopt plaintiffs’ view, a manufacturer could modify the exits in a way that makes them inoperable when a school bus is loaded with children, as long as the exits worked properly under the controlled environment of a compliance test. We do not construe the regulation to allow for such absurd results.
“Although we decide this case on the basis of impossibility preemption, rather than any conflict with the object and purpose of FMVSS 217, we note that the policy behind the regulation supports our interpretation. In May 1988, a tragic accident occurred in Carrolton, Kentucky, in which 27 passengers died after being trapped aboard a school bus. In response to this and other similar accidents, NHTSA undertook a comprehensive review of FMVSS 217, and promulgated amendments in 1992. In its commentary to those amendments, NHTSA noted an important factor in minimizing post-crash injuries and deaths on buses is the speed and ease with which occupants can evacuate the vehicle in an emergency. In our view, the requirement of a simple, manual release mechanism is consistent with these concerns because of the speed and ease it allows a student to operate an emergency exit and escape from the school bus. In contrast, an automatic speed lock carries a risk of mechanical failure, consequently increasing the risk that students will be trapped aboard school buses in emergencies.”
Estate of Miranda v. Navistar, No.21-40421, 2022 WL 109219 (5th Cir. Jan. 12, 2022).