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UNITED STATES v. CHRYSLER CORP.

February 4, 1998

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRYSLER CORPORATION, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SULLIVAN

 EMMET G. SULLIVAN, United States District Judge.

 The United States of America commenced this action for declaratory and injunctive relief and civil penalties against Chrysler Corporation for alleged violations of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 ("Safety Act"), 49 U.S.C. § 30101 et seq.1 The government claims that approximately 91,000 Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus passenger cars, manufactured before May 15, 1995, are not in compliance with the federal motor vehicle safety standard regulating seat belt assembly anchorages. Chrysler denies that the subject vehicles are not in compliance and challenges the government's interpretation of the safety standard. Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c). The American Automobile Manufacturers Association ("AAMA") has filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Chrysler's motion for summary judgment. *fn2" Upon consideration of the undisputed facts, relevant statutes, regulations and case law, and the record herein, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part, and DENIED in part. Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part, and DENIED in part.

 The Court concludes that the government's interpretation of the safety standards under consideration is permissible and that the subject vehicles fail to comply with the standard as interpreted. The Court also concludes, however, that Chrysler was not provided with adequate notice of the government's interpretation of the relevant safety standards before Chrysler conducted its compliance test of the vehicle design on November 8, 1993 and issued its certification of the subject vehicles in March 1995. Thus, Chrysler was not in violation of the Safety Act when it conducted its compliance test and certified vehicular compliance with the relevant safety standards. Nonetheless, because the subject vehicles are currently not in compliance with the safety standards as interpreted by the agency charged with ensuring motor vehicle safety, the Court will ORDER Chrysler to notify owners, purchasers, and dealers of the noncompliance by no later than March 30, 1998, and provide a remedy without charge to the owners.

 I. BACKGROUND

 A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

 Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30111(a), NHTSA has promulgated numerous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The safety standard regulating seat belt assembly anchorages is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard ("FMVSS") No. 210. See 49 C.F.R. § 571.210. Seat belt assembly anchorages are the hardware that attach the seat belts to the actual vehicle structure. FMVSS No. 210 "establishes requirements for seat belt assembly anchorages to insure their proper location for effective occupant restraint and to reduce the likelihood of their failure." Id. at S1. The standard requires that the type of anchorages at issue here (Type 2) be capable of withstanding 3,000 pounds of force when tested in accordance with the specified test procedures. See id. at S4.2.2. The test procedures for establishing compliance with the requirements of FMVSS No. 210 are set out in paragraphs S5 *fn3" and S5.2 *fn4" of the standard. FMVSS No. 210 test procedures are also set out in NHTSA's "Laboratory Test Procedure for FMVSS 210, Seat Belt Anchorages." Neither the standard nor the laboratory test procedures identify the placement of the pelvic body block during compliance testing.

 FMVSS No. 210 was first promulgated in 1967 and has always required the type of seat belt anchorages at issue here to withstand 3,000 pounds of force. See 32 Fed. Reg. 2408, 2416 (1967). The strength requirement is "intended to ensure that the safety belt system will remain attached to the vehicle and not break free, even when exposed to severe crash forces." 55 Fed. Reg. 17,970, 17,981 (1990). Moreover, this standard has always required the use of body blocks during compliance testing, and has never specified the location of the pelvic body block. See 32 Fed. Reg. 2408, 2416 (1967).

 B. Statement of Facts

 At issue are approximately 91,000 Model Year ("MY") 1995 Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus passenger cars manufactured by Chrysler Corporation between June 30, 1994, and May 15, 1995. *fn5" Chrysler conducted its compliance test of the vehicle design in question on November 8, 1993. The cars were certified as being in compliance with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards, including FMVSS No. 210, in March 1995.

 In August 1995, NHTSA requested that Chrysler acknowledge noncompliance and recall the MY 1995 Cirrus cars. In a September 28, 1995 letter to NHTSA, Chrysler contended that the test was invalid due to the placement of the pelvic body block. Chrysler stated that GTL's decision not to replace the belt webbing with wire rope, as explicitly allowed by the standard, but instead, to move the pelvic body block forward, was the cause of the July 10, 1995 test failure. Chrysler thus declined to find the cars in noncompliance or recall them.

 In a December 21, 1995 letter to Chrysler, NHTSA acknowledged that neither the FMVSS No. 210 nor the laboratory test procedures specify a position for the pelvic body block. (See Pl. Mem. Ex. 9.) NHTSA indicated however that, as was expressed in the December 5, 1991 Federal Register notice, where a standard does not specify the specific test conditions, manufacturers must therefore pass the strength test "with the safety belt and other vehicle features at any adjustment." Id.

 On January 22, 1996, NHTSA notified Chrysler of its initial decision that MY 1995 Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus passenger cars manufactured before May 15, 1995, do not comply with FMVSS No. 210. On February 23, 1996, NHTSA held a public meeting, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30118(b), to allow Chrysler and other interested persons the opportunity to present information, views and arguments on NHTSA's initial decision of noncompliance. On June 4, 1996, NHTSA issued a final decision, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30118(b), that the cars in question do not comply with FMVSS No. 210. Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30118(b)(2), the NHTSA Administrator ordered Chrysler to notify owners, purchasers, and dealers of the noncompliance no later than July 8, 1996, and to provide a remedy without charge. Chrysler previously had informed NHTSA that it would not recall the vehicles unless ordered to do so by a court. The U.S. Government filed this present action pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 30163(a), to force Chrysler to comply with the order of the NHTSA Administrator.

 II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

 A. Motion for Summary Judgment

 Summary judgment should be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 only if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). In ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court shall grant summary judgment only if one of the moving parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law upon material facts that are not genuinely disputed. See Rhoads v. McFerran, 517 F.2d 66, 67 (2d Cir. 1975). The cross-motions for summary judgment pending before the Court present no genuinely disputed material facts that would preclude summary judgment.

 B. Review of Agency Action

 This action was brought pursuant to the Safety Act by the federal government seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and for civil penalties against Chrysler Corporation for alleged noncompliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 210. District courts have jurisdiction over enforcement actions brought by the United States against motor vehicle manufacturers. See 49 U.S.C. § 30163(a). As a defense to this enforcement action, Chrysler is challenging the validity of FMVSS No. 210 as interpreted by NHTSA. *fn7" In reviewing challenges to NHTSA safety standards, the Court must determine whether the agency's rule is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. § 706; see also Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 41, 77 L. Ed. 2d 443, 103 S. Ct. 2856 (1983); Simms v. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 45 F.3d 999, 1003 (6th Cir. 1995); Paccar, Inc. v. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 573 F.2d 632, 636 (9th Cir. 1978); Chrysler Corp. v. Department of Transp., 472 F.2d 659 (6th Cir. 1972); Automotive Parts & Accessories Ass'n v. Boyd, 132 U.S. App. D.C. 200, 407 F.2d 330 (D.C. Cir. 1968).

 In reviewing an agency's interpretation of its own regulation, the Court must accord the agency's interpretation a high level of deference. See S.G. Loewendick & Sons, Inc. v. Reich, 315 U.S. App. D.C. 79, 70 F.3d 1291, 1294 (D.C. Cir. 1995) ("Well-known principles govern our review of agency interpretations of agency regulations. We owe 'substantial deference' to the agency's interpretation, which has 'controlling weight unless it is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.'" (citing Thomas Jefferson Univ. v. Shalala, 512 U.S. 504, 512, 129 L. Ed. 2d 405, 114 S. Ct. 2381 (1994))); see also ...


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