The following is a release from the American Association for Justice:
Last week the Center for Constitutional Litigation scored a major win that furthers our fight to assure that victims of corporate negligence or misconduct can hold wrongdoers accountable in the civil justice system.
In a ruling with wide implications for federal preemption and vicarious liability, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on September 14 declared the Graves Amendment unconstitutional. That amendment had given immunity to automobile rental agencies for harm caused by their vehicles (Vanguard Car Rental v.
Huchon, Case No. 06-10082-CIV-Moore/Garber, USDC SD FL).
In 2005, the Graves Amendment (49 U.S.C. Section 30106) was snuck into a 900-page transportation appropriations bill without review from relevant congressional committees. The move intentionally pre-empted state laws that imposed vicarious liability on rental car companies. The amendment was the prized lobbying success of the politically active rental car industry, which invested a substantial sum in campaign contributions in the effort.
The Florida ruling holding the Graves Amendment unconstitutional came in a declaratory judgment action brought by a group of rental car companies against a person who had been injured in a collision with a rental car. The United States intervened to defend the statute’s constitutionality. However, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore found the amendment “is an unconstitutional overreaching of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.”
“Under the rationale set forth” by the rental car companies and the United States, Judge Moore noted, “this Court is hard pressed to think of any type of state legislation which could not be pre-empted by Congress, including state taxes.” Simply put, the ruling gives rental car companies a powerful incentive to assure that their customers are adequately insured. Striking down the Graves Amendment also helps ensure that victims of car accidents with rented or leased vehicles will be adequately compensated for their injuries.
The ruling however could ultimately have wide repercussions regarding the federal government’s preemption powers. In recent years, Congress has shown little reluctance to legislate in areas of traditional state concern. Courts, led by the U.S. Supreme Court, have found such over-reaching legislation in violation of the Constitution.
CCL has numerous cases against the Graves Amendment pending in Florida state courts, having won many on a statutory interpretation argument that this federal court chose not to follow. CCL also is working closely with American Association for Justice members and affiliated state associations in New York and Connecticut and is counsel in cases pending in those states.
The CCL entered the case at the request of the attorneys for the victims, Patricia M. Kennedy and Thomas Scolaro of Leesfield Leighton and Partners, P.A. in Miami, to address the constitutional issues. John Vail, CCL Vice President and Senior Litigation Counsel, and Andre Mura, CCL Litigation Counsel, did the briefing on the constitutional issues, with Mura arguing the case.
I’m sure you all join me in congratulating CCL for this milestone victory.
Kathleen Flynn Peterson
American Association for Justice