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15 January, 2016 - 09:33

Preemption (or “pre-emption”) is illustrated by this problem: suppose there is a federal standard concerning the product, and the defendant manufacturer meets it, but the standard is not really very protective. (It is not uncommon, of course, for federal standard makers of all types to be significantly influenced by lobbyists for the industries being regulated by the standards.) Is it enough for the manufacturer to point to its satisfaction of the standard so that such satisfaction preempts (takes over) any common-law negligence claim? “We built the machine to federal standards: we can’t be liable. Our compliance with the federal safety standard is an affirmative defense.”

Preemption is typically raised as a defense in suits about (1) cigarettes, (2) FDA-approved medical devices, (3) motor-boat propellers, (4) pesticides, and (5) motor vehicles. This is a complex area of law. Questions inevitably arise as to whether there was federal preemption, express or implied. Sometimes courts find preemption and the consumer loses; sometimes the courts don’t find preemption and the case goes forward. According to one lawyer who works in this field, there has been “increasing pressure on both the regulatory and congressional fronts to preempt state laws.” That is, the usual defendants (manufacturers) push Congress and the regulatory agencies to state explicitly in the law that the federal standards preempt and defeat state law. 1 


Negligence is a second possible cause of action for products-liability claimants. A main advantage is that no issues of privity are relevant, but there are often problems of proof; there are a number of robust common-law defenses, and federal preemption is a recurring concern for plaintiffs’ lawyers.


  1. What two types of products-liability cases are most often brought under negligence?
  2. How could it be said that merely because a person suffers injury as the result of a defective product, proof of negligence is not necessarily made?
  3. What is “preemption” and how is it used as a sword to defeat products-liability plaintiffs?