Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Product Defect Claims in Truck Accident Not Preempted – Lake v. The Memphis Landsmen

By May 16, 2013 July 10th, 2019 Verdicts and Settlements

As a Missouri semi truck accident attorney, I was interested to see a trucking accident case that involved multiple defendants, including some with allegedly defective auto products. Lake v. The Memphis Landsmen et al. grew out of a collision between a concrete truck and an airport shuttle bus on which Clifton Lake was riding after arriving at the Memphis airport. Lake, a Chicago attorney, suffered brain damage after being thrown from the bus. He and his wife, Charleen Lake, settled with the owner of the concrete truck but proceeded to trial against the bus owner, bus manufacturer, window manufacturer and rental car company, alleging the seating and glass in the bus were defectively unsafe. The Tennessee Court of Appeals threw out the defect claims as preempted by federal law, but the state high court reversed and remanded.
The crash took place in 1998, when a concrete truck collided with the shuttle bus, knocking it into a pole and ultimately ejecting Lake through a window. The Memphis Landsmen was the owner of the bus and the Budget rental car franchise to which Lake was going. The next year, the Lakes filed a lawsuit against Landsmen, Budget, the concrete truck company, the manufacturer of the windows and the bus manufacturer. After settling relatively early with the concrete truck company, they alleged that it was negligent to offer for sale, and to use, a bus without seatbelts, which were available and inexpensive. They also alleged that the window glass should have been laminated, not tempered, and that the perimeter seating arrangement in the bus was unsafe.
The case proceeded to trial, and the jury attributed 100 percent of the fault to the concrete truck, leaving the Lakes with no recovery other than their earlier settlement. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court should have dismissed the defect claims as preempted by federal motor vehicle safety standards. But in 2011, a U.S. Supreme Court case laid down rules for when federal standards preempt auto product defect cases, and the Tennessee Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration. That court found no reason to disturb its earlier decision, and the Lakes again appealed.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately found that the regulatory history of the federal standards doesn’t support a finding of implied preemption on the seatbelt claim, particularly given the cautions laid down in the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case. A brief from the Department of Transportation in that case further bolstered the court’s findings, by calling previous decisions in the instant case “erroneous.” On the glass issue, the high court said, other courts are evenly split, but it ultimately found no indication of a regulatory intent that would create preemption. Finally, the high court reversed a directed verdict for the defense on the Lakes’ claim that perimeter seating in buses is unsafe. The Court of Appeals found no evidence that Lake was seated, making the issue moot, but the Supreme Court found the expert’s testimony sufficient to avoid a directed verdict.
As a St. Louis tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I’m sorry that the Lakes had to spend well over a decade litigating this issue in order to win compensation. Brain injuries are very serious, life-changing events. Though the case doesn’t detail Lake’s injury, it notes testimony from former colleagues of his, suggesting that his injury was so serious that he needed to stop working. This has profound implications for his happiness and basic abilities, as well as for his family’s income. Accidents with large commercial trucks often create this type of catastrophic injury, because the force a semi truck brings to a crash is so much greater than the opposing force of the smaller vehicle. (It’s especially dangerous when the passenger is not adequately restrained, as Lake was not.) That’s why it’s vital that victims of trucking accidents caused by someone else’s negligence be able to claim fair compensation. Our southern Illinois tanker truck accident attorneys are proud of our success helping injured people and their families make their claims.


Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who suffered serious injuries in a collision with a large truck. To tell us your story and learn more about your rights, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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